For young people who have had a difficult childhood, recalling happy memories may reduce the risk of depression.
That’s the finding of a recent study from the University of Cambridge in the UK that researchers are hoping will pave the way for new innovative prevention and treatment options for depression.
"Depression often first occurs in adolescence, which is associated with changes to everything from brain chemistry and stress hormones to social relationships. Personal memories may be particularly important in this time period, as adolescents seek to find out who they are, who they have been and who they want to be. Indeed, memories are central to our individual sense of self and well-being. When young people get depressed, they often struggle with recalling detailed positive memories. This may contribute to an overly negative view of themselves," Adrian Dahl Askelund, author of the study, told Theravive.
“We were interested in studying whether accessing detailed positive memories from one’s past was protective in young people who were vulnerable to depression. This is important because being able to recall detailed positive memories is a skill that can be trained,” he said.
In undertaking the research, Askelund and colleagues studied 427 14-year-old teenagers over a one-year period. During this time, the researchers collected measures of stress hormones, mood, depressive symptoms and negative thoughts. The teenagers studied were at risk of depression due to difficult experiences during childhood.
They found that the teenagers who were able to recollect more detailed positive memories from the beginning of the study had fewer negatives thoughts towards themselves, as well as lower levels of stress hormones at the conclusion of the study a year later.
“We found that recalling detailed positive memories was associated with reduced vulnerability to depression at both a psychological and physiological level. This shows the stress-reducing effects of remembering previous positive life experiences in our everyday lives. This also suggests that increasing access to detailed positive memories may aid prevention and treatment of depression,” Askelund said.
The researchers also found that recalling happy memories lowered depressive symptoms in those who had experience at least one hard event in the period of the study, yet for those who did not experience such stressful events, recalling positive memories did not impact their negative or depressive thoughts.
“We were interested in resilience, or why certain people do not develop depressive symptoms after negative life events. We found that those who recalled more detailed positive events from their past maintained good mental health even after major stressors. Interestingly, recalling detailed positive memories was not important for those who didn’t experience much stress during the study. This suggests that recalling positive memories may enhance resilience to stress in young people, especially in those who experience high levels of stress,” Askelund said.
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. According to a study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2011-2012 more than 2.6 million US children and teenagers aged 6-17 had anxiety or depression.
The researchers say their findings are a reminder that trying to focus on positives can protect against developing depression and help build resilience in vulnerable teenagers. If something bad happens that may spark a negative thought in a teenager (for example “I am useless”) the researchers say recalling a happy memory (for example "I was able to help someone") may help protect against the negative thoughts.
One way that could assist in encouraging positive memories is by keeping a journal. Although this requires further study, it may be beneficial to write down both happy and sad things that have occurred, and reflect on the impact this has on mood and thoughts. However, this may not be effective for those who experience clinical depression. In those cases, encouraging the recollection of positive memories may best occur through established treatments like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
“Training depressed people in recalling detailed positive memories before they start psychotherapy could improve outcomes. For instance, in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) patients are often trained in using techniques to challenge negative self-related thoughts. As suggested by our study, being able to recall detailed positive events from the past (‘that day that I got the highest grade in math class’) may help in disconfirming negative thoughts about yourself (‘I am useless’). Therefore, it is important to investigate whether this ability to recall detailed positive memories could be trained, and whether this would amplify the effects of CBT in depression,” Askelund said.
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.