How Women Deal with Bad Memories Linked with Depression

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Certain groups of women may be particularly prone to depression because of the way they deal with negative memories, a new study says.

The results show healthy women who scored high on tests of neuroticism — a personality trait associated with experiencing more negative emotions, such as anxiety — tended to return to their bad memories to mull them over.

This process, called rumination, is known to be linked with depression, the researchers said.

In addition, women who tended to deal with negative memories by trying to suppress them were actually more likely to recall negative memories, and then feel bad after remembering them, compared with women who used other coping strategies. No such link was found in men.

The findings suggest that changing the way we deal with emotional challenges such as negative memories may help prevent depression, said study researcher Florin Dolcos, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Dolcos and colleagues surveyed about 70 men and women ages 18 to 34 who did not have a history of depression or other psychiatric disorders. They gave participants a questionnaire with 115 phrases intended to elicit memories of distinct life events such as "being hospitalized," "birth of a family member," or "witnessing an accident." For each life event they could recall, participants gave the date of the event, reported how often they thought about it, and rated the emotional significance of the memory. Only memories with strong emotional significance were chosen for the study's analysis. Participants also completed a personality test.

Men with a high level of neuroticism tended to recall a greater proportion of negative memories than men who were low in neuroticism. In contrast, women high in neuroticism tended to revisit the same negative memoires.

The researchers also assessed participants' tendencies to deal with bad memories through two strategies: suppression, which involves trying not to think about a memory, and reappraisal, in which people attempt to reduce the impact of negative memories by putting a new perspective on them. For instance, you might fail to get a job, but perhaps an opportunity or new connection resulted from the interview, Dolcos said. You could reappraise your memory by focusing on the positive aspects of the situation.

Suppressing negative memories may not be a good coping strategy because, by refusing to think about these memories, a person does not resolve their feelings about the situation, Dolcos said. If you relive memories to reappraise them, in a way, you find a solution that might help you feel better," he said.

Switching to a strategy of reappraisal, and interrupting memory rumination, may be ways to prevent development of clinical disorders, including depression, Dolcos said.

Pass it on:  Reappraising bad memories is a more effective way to deal with these memories than suppressing them.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.