One symptom of posttraumatic stress is the recollection of traumatic memories. People with other mood issues, such as depression, also often find themselves ruminating about negative memories or situations. Many of the negative thoughts are related to past events, but some are internally based and are cognitions of self. People can ruminate endlessly about low feelings of self-esteem, self-worth, or self-love. Managing the recall of negative memories or thoughts has long been a target of interventions aimed at psychological distress. However, sometimes the recollections are too upsetting and cannot be worked through in a therapeutic setting. One theory that has arisen in conjunction with upsetting recall is attachment theory. Experts have begun to wonder if positive feelings related to an attachment figure, such as a parent, child, or romantic partner, could buffer someone from the traumatic or negative feelings associated with bad memories or thoughts.
To test this theory, Vivian Zayas of the Department of Psychology at Cornell University recently conducted several studies that involved participants recalling upsetting memories while looking at or thinking about a positive attachment figure versus a neutral attachment figure. After reviewing the results, Zayas found that the participants were able to recall traumatic memories with less difficulty when they were thinking about a positive attachment figure. “Across three studies, simply imagining a supportive interaction with, or viewing a photograph of, an attachment figure (versus an acquaintance or a stranger) after recalling an upsetting memory enhanced recovery,” said Zayas. The findings also indicated that attachment anxiety influenced recall slightly, but further research is needed to gather any conclusions about that relationship. Zayas also noticed that the most positive outcomes were attained when participants looked at pictures of their romantic partners. This suggests that loving and secure attachments can help protect individuals from the negative reactions that can occur when faced with stressful situations, whether they are from the past or the present.
Selcuk, E., Zayas, V., Gunaydin, G., Hazan, C., Kross, E. (2012). Mental representations of attachment figures facilitate recovery following upsetting autobiographical memory recall. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology103.2: 362-378.
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