New Research Finds A Technique To Manipulate How We Process Trauma

We put a lot of thought into how to improve our memory, especially as we age. But what about those memories we’d rather forget?

When something traumatic happens in our lives, it can result in any number of reactions, from PTSD to feelings of fear and hopelessness to even being “stuck” in the body, causing all sorts of issues.

What if there was a way to influence how our brains store emotional memories? Researchers from the University of Illinois believe they may have figured out how to do just that.

Testing emotional memory formation.

For the study, 19 subjects looked at negative or neutral photos while hooked up to a brain scanner. They were told to either focus on the foreground or the background of the photos, and after four seconds, they rated whether it made them feel very negative, not negative at all, or somewhere in the middle.

Professor of psychology Florin Dolcos, Ph.D., explains, “The idea was to see whether by engaging in an emotional-regulation strategy we can influence those types of memory properties.”

After a few days, the participants came back and rated the pictures again based on familiarity, and the subsequent results suggested focusing on neutral details in the background of a traumatic scene can change the way we encode a memory.

Namely, trauma will seem less negative, and fewer details will be remembered by looking at the background. And what’s more, the brain region responsible for emotional memory formation won’t light up as much.

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Focusing on the neutral details.

For people dealing with anxiety or depression, as well as people with potentially traumatic jobs (EMTs, surgeons, police officers), researchers note having an emotional-regulation strategy like this can help with resilience and mitigating the negative effects of a disturbing experience.

According to professor Sanda Dolcos, Ph.D., “This is the first example that we know of that focusing on the context of an emotional event while it is occurring can directly influence memory formation in the moment.” We already know that emotion has a strong effect on memory formation, but when those emotions are negative, “it can be problematic for those who recall—again and again—the details of a disturbing or traumatic event,” she says.

This strategy offers a novel approach to try when confronted with a bad experience, especially if your line of work puts you in distressing situations. And if you’re looking for relief from a previous traumatic experience, here’s one psychiatrist’s take on why nature can be so helpful, plus three yoga poses to help heal.