When I was a young adult, my Mother noted that listening to me one would think I had a really sad childhood. Many of the memories I voiced were about hurts and sadness, not about joys and fun. One thing I have observed is that life recovery students often express the same preoccupation with the hurts, trauma, and losses of their lives. It seems that painful and traumatic memories have much more power of persistence in our minds than many of the positive ones. Or maybe it’s simply that some people get stuck in a “glass half empty” view of life. What I observe, however, is that as we begin life recovery healing, they begin to remember good things about childhood, adolescence, and even last week. This past week a student and I were talking to her children during a lengthy car ride about our childhood recollection of nicknames. Some of those experiences were very sweet memories for the student and me in our lives. Then, the two daughters of hers began to share about their experiences of nicknames they have experienced in their lives already…… from close friends, teachers, and family members. We laughed as they shared the ways in which those nicknames had come about…..all of them fun and endearing……given to them in celebration and remembrance of a shared experience, an association with a personality or physical characteristic or accomplishment of the individual, etc. The student and I agreed that it was a sweet discussion and she decided to journal the conversation as a reminder of this time when she and her girls had shared their hearts with one another. We suggested to the girls that they, too, journal what they’d told us about their happy memories of the people and the nicknames those friends and family had given to them. The conversation was a gift. The realization that people loved us enough to see things in us that were worthy of being celebrated with a “name” that expresses who we are was also a gift.
As students are required to dig deep into themselves as part of the Twelve Step process, they begin to recall painful things, in particular, that they have stuffed deep inside themselves. But in the less structured work of life recovery, we work on accessing the positive, happy, and redeeming memories and associations that reside there, too. It is accomplished through discussions about things of interest to the student and how those interests came to be, through art therapy in which they stretch their creative imaginations to reveal through visual media how they or others have defined them or what dreams for their lives they had and thought were forever lost to them. It is done through music, in which they revisit songs that have stuck in their minds, often associated with some person, place or event that was meaningful to them. It is done through genogram sessions during which they explore the relationships with and memories of people who were influential and “safe” in their early lives while also desensitizing them to those who may have been less “safe” and nurturing. Gradually, we see precious memories emerge that they to which they had lost access. They can begin to redefine the negative image of themselves through the eyes of people who saw good things in them or people and situations that encouraged and nurtured them. No one would survive childhood without someone(s) who provided nurture, not just physically but emotionally, too. Re-engaging those positive reminders of who we are can reframe experiences, strengthen resilience, and redefine one’s present self-value. Individuals can choose to embrace those positive reminders of who they are and cast aside the negative images they have allowed to be put upon them by themselves or someone else. Memory is powerful…..As Dr. Jim Luther has often stated, “We remember what we should forget and we forget what we should remember.” Life recovery therapy helps restore the balance in the tendency to remember the worst about ourselves and forget the best!
Can Positive Memories Help Mental Health?
Researchers from the University of Liverpool have published a study highlighting the effectiveness of using positive memories and images to help generate positive emotions.
It has been suggested that savouring positive memories can generate positive emotions. Increasing positive emotion can have a range of benefits including reducing attention to and experiences of threat.
The study, supervised by Dr Peter Taylor from the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, investigated individuals’ emotional reactions to a guided mental imagery task focussing on positive social memory called the ‘social Broad Minded Affective Coping (BMAC)’ technique.
BMAC is an intervention that aims to elicit positive affect or emotion through the use of mental imagery of a positive memory. The study aimed to investigate individuals’ emotional reactions to the mental imagery of a positive social memory using this technique.
A secondary aim was to examine possible predictors of individuals’ responses to this intervention. It was expected that the results would help to indicate when the social BMAC may be used most effectively in clinical settings.
As part of the study 123 participants, recruited online, completed self-report measures of self-attacking (thinking mean, diminishing, insulting, and shaming thoughts about oneself), social safeness (feelings of warmth and connectedness) and pleasure.
Participants were then asked to recall a recent positive memory of being with another person and to complete the social BMAC prompt sheet. Following this, they followed auditory instructions, which guided them through an initial relaxation exercise and the social BMAC. The aim of the relaxation exercise was to focus individuals’ attention to themselves and the present moment.
The social BMAC guided the person through a positive social memory. Participants were encouraged to engage all the senses, think about the meaning of the memory to them, savour the positive feelings they experienced, and consider the positive feelings in the mind of another before reflecting upon the feelings they experience as well as what this means to them. It then asks the person to savour that feeling.
Participants completed state measures of positive and negative affect and social safeness/pleasure before and after the intervention.
Social safeness increased
The study found that that safe/warm positive affect, relaxed positive affect and feelings of social safeness increased following the social BMAC, whilst negative affect decreased.
Of the research Dr Taylor, said: “The results provide preliminary support for the effectiveness of the social BMAC in activating specific types of emotion.
“These results suggest that the BMAC has the potential to be a practical and effective method for boosting mood amongst individuals with specific mental health problems such as anxiety or depression.”
The research was undertaken in collaboration with clinicians from Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust and the Compassion in Mind company.
The study, entitled ‘Emotional Response to a Therapeutic Technique: The social Broad Minded Affective Coping (BMAC)’, has been published today (20 April 2016) in the journal ‘Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice’.
The full paper can be found here.