Going Over and Over Bad Memories of Past Trauma Leads to Depression in Women

How a woman deals with negative memories can make her prone to depression, according to a new study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ineffective ways of coping with memories of old traumas include trying to suppress them or doing the opposite – thinking about them over and over again.

For this study, Dr. Florin Dolcos, a psychology professor at UI, tested 70 men and women ages 18 to 34 years old who had no histories of depression or any other psychiatric disorders. Everyone first took a personality test. Then participants filled out questionnaires with 115 phrases that would trigger memories of important events, such as the birth of a new family member, being hospitalized, witnessing an accident, and so forth. Every time participants recalled a life event, they gave the date of the event, rate its emotional significance in their lives, and report how often they thought about it.

Men who scored high on neuroticism were more likely to recall more negative events than those who scored lower in that area. However, the effect was different for the women who scored high on neuroticism. They were more likely to "ruminate," which means to go over and over the negative event in their minds. Rumination is associated with depression.

"Depressed people recollect those negative memories and as a result they feel sad," Dr. Dolcos said. "And as a result of feeling sad, the tendency is to have more negative memories recollected. It’s a kind of a vicious circle."

Women who tried not to think about their negative memories produced the opposite effect they wanted. Suppressing memories made them more likely to recall negative events and then feel bad after remembering them. This effect was not found among the male participants.

Dr. Dolcos said that one strategy called "reappraisal" does help people deal with negative memories by putting them into a new perspective. For example, not getting a promotion may have the effect of starting a search that leads to an even better job. Although you remember not getting promoted, you also remember that it led to a positive outcome. Reappraising bad memories interrupted harmful rumination.

The study appears in the journal Emotion, a publication of the American Psychological Association.

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