Heated arguments can frequently leave us in a bad mood.
But recalling the details of a disagreement in a particular way can actually stop it leading to anxiety and depression, research finds.
The same is true of other types upsetting or stressful events that can put us in a bad mood.
Remembering where you where, exactly what was said, and — vitally — how it could have been dealt with differently, can all help with a bad mood.
Professor Ed Watkins, who led the research, said:
“Christmas and the New Year can be a tricky time for many people’s mood whether it be due to the colder and darker weather, the often common family tensions and quarrels, which sometimes lead to the reopening of old grievances, finances being tight, or the triggering of unfavourable comparisons with how we want to be this year or against “picture-perfect” ideals of a Merry Christmas.
We often see this in an increase in referrals for treatment for depression in January and February.
Staying with the details of what happens and keeping it in context can be one way to prevent these challenges of the festive season becoming something worse.”
In the studies, people were trained to focus on the sensory details of the upsetting experiences.
- What was the tone of your voice?
- What were the exact words used?
- What exactly happened then?
People who did this recovered more quickly from moderately upsetting experiences.
A clinical trial in patients with depression asked them to focus on and re-imagine stressful events.
They thought about what they could see, hear, smell and feel.
Daily training at spotting the warning signs of stress helped them reduce the symptoms of depression.
Rumination and a bad mood
The findings are surprising because typically running over troubling events, or ruminating, is linked to worsening depression.
But this method of re-imagining is different, Professor Watkins explained, because it is constructive:
“We know that rumination about upsets and losses is a big factor in getting and staying anxious and depressed.
Often clinical depression can follow a difficult life event, such as losing a job, the end of a relationship, illness, or being trapped in a stressful situation.
Furthermore, once people are depressed, the normal hassles and challenges of daily life can themselves lead into more rumination and get blown out of proportion, further fuelling the depression.
So being more concrete by reducing the negative impact of daily hassles can help people to come out of depression,”
Professor Watkins continued:
“We have found in the lab that when people train themselves to think about the specific sensory details, context and sequence of an emotional event, including how it unfolded, they were more emotionally resilient to an unexpected stressor than those who thought about the meaning and implications of emotional events.
Similar studies showed that when people with depression are encouraged to focus on how an upsetting event happened and how it unfolded it improved their ability to solve problems such as arguing with their partner, and with repeated practice, this can in fact hasten recovery out of depression itself.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The research was conducted in the lab of Professor Ed Watkins at the University of Exeter.