Can Negative Emotions Enhance Memory

Can Negative Emotions Enhance Memory

Juan Esterhuizen Transformation Psychologist & Life Coach

Can Negative Emotions Enhance Memory 

I touched on this briefly in an earlier post, but yes - it does seem as though negative emotions can help improve our memory accuracy.

Psychological research seems to back this as a concept. It seems that our emotions increase our ability to access ‘mood-congruent’ information (so, information associated with specific emotions) within our memory banks. Research by Kensinger, Garoff-Eaton, and Schacter found that participants who associated negative emotions with different objects versus objects associated with neutral emotions were more accurately able to recall exact visual details of the negatively associated items. Evidence has also shown that negative emotions enhance both our impressions of how vivid the memory is and our ability to recall some details of specific events (Kensinger 2007). Imaging of the brain has also linked engagement with the emotional processing areas of the brain and the areas related to encoding and retrieval of memory.

Negative Emotions and Motivation

There is new research emerging connecting negative emotions with motivation. Anger has by far been the main emotion explored in this area, and it has been repeatedly connected to encouraging and leading to motivation to act within a given scenario, but more research is needed in this regard. 

Negative emotions may encourage us to see difficult or negative emotions as a part of the bigger picture of overall happiness. They instruct us that a change is needed and we need to act on the negative behavior to create the change that would lead us to further happiness. If we channel our negative emotions constructively we can address our deeper needs and seek out positive outcomes. Positive psychology follows a similar vein as it views adversity as an avenue of growth. The approach of positive psychology is on embracing adversity, discomfort, and negative emotions as a path to building better resilience. It views negative emotions as an important part of spiritual living and in coming to terms with difficult emotions such as guilt or anxiety and in doing so we can build a deeper connection with who we want to be and how we want to show up in the world.

I think, as we have explored, that it is in our awareness and understanding of our negative emotions that we can achieve the best benefits within any given situation. With greater understanding, we can further utilize our negative emotions to help motivate us to achieve goals and find solutions to the challenges we might be facing.

How Can We Best Control and Deal with Negative Emotions?

One of the best ways to deal with our negative emotions is through acceptance. Just as there are benefits to negative emotions, forcing ourselves to be happy all the time can also be detrimental to our overall emotional well-being. Accepting negative emotions, in ourselves and others, as part of being human allows us to build better compassion for how they might present themselves and why. Rather than becoming stuck in a mindset that negative emotions need to be avoided or that they are somehow ‘wrong’ to experience, we need to accept they are a natural part of who we are.

Once we do that we can begin to change how we might respond to them and develop behaviours that are meaningful and bring value to how we express ourselves and engage with others.

Manage, Process, and Embrace Negative Emotions

As positive psychology has gained more insight into negative emotions, it has also been able to provide us with multiple strategies for balancing these emotions within our day-to-day lives.

Sims explored ways to proactively process and acknowledge negative emotions and came up with the acronym TEARS of HOPE to help coach and guide individuals. Here’s what it stands for:

T = Teach and Learn

This is the process of listening to what your body is trying to teach you through the presentation of negative emotions and to learn what they mean. It is building your knowledge of the way you respond to emotional states, interpreting the signals your body is sending you, and acknowledging that they serve a purpose.

E = Express and Enable

Negative emotions encourage us to express them. They are very actionable emotions. The express and enable part of the acronym encourages you to explore this with openness and curiosity. It’s about increasing your acceptance of your natural instincts and enabling them to be present without resentment.

A = Accept and Befriend

This follows on nicely from express and enable. It is about befriending yourself and the way you are as a human. Focus on increasing your acceptance with positive affirmations to bring your sphere of negative emotions into a space of acceptance. To truly love yourself as a Divine Creation is not a sign of vanity as you may have been led to believe.

R = Re-appraise and Re-frame

Once you have begun to accept adversity as a natural part of learning and to facilitate spiritual growth, it will help you accept who you are, and you can begin to focus on reframing the situation and how to react. Just because a negative emotion has arisen, doesn’t mean you have to react in ways that are detrimental to you and those around you.

Accepting negative emotions is not about accepting or excusing poor behaviours, it is about creating an awareness that will facilitate positive reactions.

S = Social Support

Knowing that negative emotions are present in all of us can be a fantastic source of compassion and empathy for those around us. It is important to realise that we all process emotions differently, so seeing someone in the throws of anger, and realising that they are just handling a perceived threat in their unique way can encourage us to approach them from a place of compassion, rather than anger.

H = Hedonic Well-being and Happiness

This is the process of grouping positive with negative experiences. Because we more readily recall negative experiences, it can be useful for us to group them with positive experiences so we do not fall into a ruminating trap. This way, we can focus more of our energy on recalling the positive experiences.

O = Observe and Attend

Take the time to observe your reactions without ignoring them, repressing them, or exaggerating them. Use mindfulness to bring your focus to your mind and body and what a particular emotion is creating within you. Attend to these reactions without judgment. 

P = Physiology and Behavioural Changes

Just as you observe your emotional and mental responses, observe your physiological reactions too. Bring your focus to your breath, and your heart rate and become aware of any changes in your physiology that a negative emotion may have caused. Just become aware of any changes without judgment.

E = Eudaimonia

This might not be a word you are familiar with, but it is well worth adding to your vocabulary. Eudaimonia is a Greek word which refers to having a good spirit. It means you have found a state of being that is happy, healthy, and prosperous, and you have learned to engage in actions that result in your overall well-being. It means you are actively striving towards a sense of authenticity in all your actions.

Next Blog: Tips on Managing Negative Emotions

Can Negative Emotions Enhance Memory

Juan Esterhuizen Transformation Psychologist & Life Coach

Juan Esterhuizen Transformation Psychologist & Life Coach is a published psychologist, integrative life coach and stress and trauma release therapist with a practice in Caledon. Offering a range of exclusive in-person and online psychological counselling services, Juan is also available to travel to...

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