Reappraising Negative Emotional Memories: How To Reduce Distress From Past Events

Life can throw all sorts of challenges and problems our way. Sometimes it can feel like we are hurtling from one problem to another, and at other times, just as it seems everything is settled, something else crops up to occupy us. Perhaps the only certainty (apart from death and taxes!) is that we will face problems and challenges as we navigate our way through life.

To help us face life's challenges, we can develop our confidence and self-esteem, our resilience, positivity, optimism and ability to be in control over our thoughts and feelings. We can get better at problem solving, at letting go of things we can't control and at how quickly and effectively we recover and move on from stressful events we encounter.

Often we move on from these challenges over time, and the emotions attached to them wither and deplete. Time can lessen the initial emotional impact; we make sense of what happened, we find solutions and plenty of other things come along to occupy our attention. And there are plenty of therapeutic strategies and techniques that can help to lessen emotions on past events and to help you feel better when you think back, and as you progress forwards.

We have all encountered negative emotional events in our lives, whether it's the death of a loved one, illness, an argument, a perceived failure of some kind, or something else. Our memories are our perceptions of past events and how we think about things can change over time and based on how we feel right now. If you feel bad or low then that will colour how you think back upon events in your life and those feelings can lead to more negative thoughts, feelings and memories that match that feeling coming to mind. And when you feel better in yourself, those past things may not carry the same weight and you may find it easier to think back upon earlier negative things (and easier to recall more positive things too).

When I used to struggle with anxiety and low self-esteem, I could easily recall many, many past events that I consider negative, most of which involved (in my view) me making an idiot of myself in some way. It used to be that anytime I thought back on one of these things I felt a pang of regret and embarrassment. Now, if I think back on them much at all, I shrug, remind myself that was back then and move on with my day.

Here today I'm covering recent research that provides you with a way to reflect on your own capabilities, to boost your self-efficacy and resilience, and to reduce distress on negative emotional memories. 

Reappraising Negative Emotional Memories Reduce Distress From Past Events 

Boosting Resilience and Reducing Distress

Recent research has investigated how people can strengthen their psychological resilience when facing adversity through recalling memories of self-efficacy. 

Self-efficacy is your belief in your own ability to influence the events that affect your life, and as such has a significant role to play in your mental health and well-being. By believing in your own capabilities, you will feel more able to overcome challenges and problems. It also likely means that you will have stronger problem-solving abilities, a higher level of persistence and an increased ability to regulate your emotions.   

If you don't believe in your ability to handle difficult circumstances then you may experience anxiety and seek to avoid those perceived threatening things (potentially missing the opportunity to reappraise those things as  non-threatening when nothing untoward happens). 

Paersch et al (2021) had participants select a personal negative memory that was still mildly to moderately distressing (but not traumatic), that is, from 25-75 on a scale from 0 (not at all distressing) to 100 (severely distressing memory). The content of the memory was very individual, with the most frequent content of the negative memory containing arguments with significant others, or the death or serious illness of a loved one.

Participants were then asked to recall three specific autobiographical events. One group were asked to think of specific events demonstrating "strength and self-efficacy where they managed a situation successfully despite potential barriers" (self-efficacy condition). This included things in a sporting or academic exam context, or successfully dealing with difficult emotional situations. Another group were asked to think of "specific events where they felt particularly positive" such as happy encounters with friends or holidays (positive condition). The original negative event was then recalled again about eight days later to measure distress levels.

They found that the self-efficacy condition was associated with significant reductions in distress, as compared to the positive memory group. That is, recalling self-efficacy episodes can help with reappraising negative memories and so help with recovery from stressful events. By drawing upon examples of your own self-efficacy, you can reassess a negative emotional memory and experience less distress from it.

This could be down to this helping your ability to contextualise negative events, an increased emotional regulation capability, or the generation of problem solving content that was applied to the negative memory to reduce distress. However, I think from our point of view, the most important aspect is not the underlying mechanism but rather the key finding that recalling times of personal strength and self-efficacy can help you to reduce your levels of distress related to other, more negative, memories.

Recalling self-efficacious events may also help strengthen your resilience  by increasing your own belief in your ability to handle future problems and challenges. So how can you use this research to reflect upon your own capabilities, reduce distress on negative emotional memories and to strengthen your own personal resilience? 

 

Reduce Distress From Past Events

This process builds upon that in the research above to help you reduce your level of distress about a past event, and to strengthen your sense of resilience.

Follow these steps: 

1. Spend a few moments to think of a personal negative memory that is still mildly to moderately distressing (but not a traumatic memory). On a scale from 0 (not at all distressing) to 100 (severely distressing memory) it should be somewhere in the range of 25-75 on that scale. Briefly notice the kind of negative thoughts and emotions you have related to it.

Also take a moment to think of three specific events demonstrating strength and self-efficacy, where you managed a situation successfully despite potential barriers. This could be something related to sport, an academic achievement, giving a presentation, successfully dealing with a difficult emotional situation, or another instance where you demonstrated personal strength and self-efficacy.

2. Now, ensuring you are sitting somewhere quiet, take a deep breath and close your eyes. If you know self-hypnosis or meditation techniques you could incorporate these here. Start to extend your out breath and say the word 'relax' to yourself on every breath out. You could tense and relax each part of your body or tell yourself that each part of your body is relaxing. You could imagine a calm colour or sensation spreading through you or fill your mind with a relaxing sound. You could engage your imagination and imagine being in a remembered or created place of calmness, seeing the sights and hearing the sounds. Or you can draw upon and utilise any other ways that allow you to feel comfortable, calm and relaxed. Your aim here is just to feel as safe, calm and comfortable as you can right now.

3. As you relax, now bring to mind your first specific event demonstrating strength and self-efficacy, a time where you managed a situation successfully despite potential barriers. Recall it as vividly as you can and imagine being back in that moment now, like you are there again, seeing what you saw, hearing what you heard and feeling the feelings of strength, confidence and capability. Notice the colours, shades of light and the details. Notice the sounds nearby and any further away and run through this event where you felt accomplished, you overcame a challenge or you succeeded in a goal, as vividly and with as much detail as you can.

As you run through this time, notice all the things that tell you that you are managing this situation successfully, that you are displaying personal strength and demonstrating your belief in your ability to influence your life, to draw upon your capabilities, to handle challenges and to achieve your goals. Notice everything that tells you that you are managing things successfully here despite any potential barriers. Remind yourself of what you accomplished here and of how capable and self-confident you are and that you managed this thing successfully. 

Imagine a sense of capability and confidence spreading through you and that you are getting more and more used to. Give it a colour and spread it into every part of you, or a sound that resonates within you, and imagine amplifying and magnifying that feeling.

4. Repeat the above step with your other two self efficacy events.

5. Having done so, and having really developed a sense of your own personal strength and self-confidence, and your belief in your own capabilities, bring to mind your previous negative memory that you thought of before you started.

With this sense of strength, confidence and capability, start to tell yourself that you are letting go of any old unwanted thoughts and feelings about it and that you feel more comfortable about that past thing. As you think back and imagine now letting go of any old distress, think to yourself, 'I now feel more calm and comfortable."  Repeat it to yourself in a way that is convincing and that you believe. Say it like you absolutely mean it and repeat it over and over with a sense of gentle reassurance. 

6. Sometimes when you experience a challenging emotional event, there can be positive aspects or personal growth you've experienced as a result of it. You may have experienced positive changes in how you relate to others, a greater sense of your own personal strength and capability, a greater appreciation of things, or you may have discovered and embraced new possibilities of some kind.

Many people experience a sense of personal growth as a result of negative experiences. As you think back on this memory and the times where you demonstrated self-efficacy, tell yourself, trust and know that you are letting go of any old feelings. Start to assure yourself and believe in your own ability to handle any difficulties in your life, to be able to draw upon your capabilities and that you are growing stronger and feeling more capable.

7. Having done so, take a few moments to relax. You can focus on your breathing and imagine that with every breath, you are breathing in calmness, and relaxing more as you exhale. You could imagine words, colours and sounds of calmness spreading through you. Just take a moment to pause and relax before you bring this session to an end. 

8. Then, when you are ready, and to bring this process to an end, take a deep breath, count up from 1 up to 3 inside your mind and then open your eyes and reorient yourself to your surroundings.

You may also find this hypnosis download, where I guide you through this process of reducing distress, to be helpful:

Reduce Distress From Past Events hypnosis download

I do hope that you find this process useful for reducing distress on past emotional memories and for developing your sense of capability, confidence and resilience for the future. 

To your health and happiness,

Dan Regan

Online Skype and Zoom Hypnotherapy  

Face-to-face hypnotherapy in Ely & Newmarket

 

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Reference:

Paersch, C., Schulz, A., Wilhelm, F.H., Brown, A.D. and Kleim, B., 2021. Recalling autobiographical self-efficacy episodes boosts reappraisal-effects on negative emotional memories. Emotion.