Break Out the Polaroids, Because Accessing Happy Memories Could Help Stave Off Depression

Photo: Getty Images/ F.J. Jiménez
I have a pile of Instax snapshots I pull out when I’m down—little reference cards to remind me, “You are loved.” When you’re depressed, it's a message that can easily get muffled in the mental din of unbearable negativity. So color me intrigued by a new study from the University of Cambridge and University College London, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, that showed recalling positive memories could decrease risk of depression in young people.

The study asked nearly 500 adolescents (average age 14) who were at risk of depression to call up specific memories (both positive and negative) by responding to certain prompts. Then, with these happy thoughts fresh in their mind, they were interviewed about negative events they experienced in the past 12 months and reported any symptoms of depression or negative self-thoughts they'd had in the past two weeks. Their morning cortisol levels, which the researchers used to measure stress, were also collected. When the experiment was conducted again one year later, the researchers found that, after recalling positive memories, the teens had "lower morning cortisol and fewer negative self-cognitions during low mood."

"Our work suggests that 'remembering the good times' may help build resilience to stress and reduce vulnerability to depression in young people," said Adrian Dahl Askelund, the study's lead author. "This is important [because] we already know that it is possible to train people to come up with specific positive memories. This could be a beneficial way of helping support those young people at risk of depression."

Now, granted, I’m nearly double the age of 14 and it’s um...a little too late to say I'm “at risk” for depression. But I have this habit of accessing the archives—be it select journal entries or choice photo sets—when I see myself start to slip. Could “remembering the good times” be a viable trick for a grown-up woman living with depression? Also, should I still be using the term “grown-up” at 27?

“Research suggests that the recollection of memories that are associated with intense emotion can bring about experiences of that emotion. So, accessing nostalgic, happy memories can boost mood.” —Marla W. Deibler, clinical psychologist

Yes to the first part, and probably not to the second. “The area of the brain that is responsible for the encoding of emotion (the amygdala) and the part of the brain that is responsible for the encoding of memory (the hippocampus) have a bidirectional, interactive relationship,” says Marla W. Deibler, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia. In layman’s terms, that means the emotional side of the brain and memory center of the brain have a two-way relationship. “Just as we are more likely to be able to pay attention and recall events that are emotionally evocative, research also suggests that the recollection of memories that are associated with intense emotion can bring about experiences of that emotion. So, accessing nostalgic, happy memories can boost mood.”

That's excellent news, but doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be wary when it comes to dredging up the past. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll click my Facebook "On This Day" and it’ll be like, “Remember when, six years ago, you had a fluffy, adorable Sheltie pup? Well, she’s hella dead now.” (“OH, SERENA!” I wail to the computer screen every damn time.)

So how do we access those happy memories without taking a left turn? One study published in Clinical Psychological Science showed that depressed individuals were able to better recall positive memories when using an ancient mnemonic strategy called the method of loci than when using another memory technique. How does it work? The method of loci involves mapping a mental route (usually something familiar, rather than entirely made up) or building a "memory palace" and associating specific recollections with objects you find there. So, maybe you picture yourself walking through a local park, and you place one fond memory on a bench, another by a water fountain, etc.

Hmm. Let’s try this out.

When it comes to my Instax pile, I tend to stick with the photoset from my 26th birthday. I’m wearing a vintage red and white gown with a striped bodice and polka-dot skirt. There are shots of me embracing good friends, holding silk flowers, and picking out New Wave records. The theme was ‘80s Teen Movie, and my God, I was definitely prom queen that night. So, to call up those memories when my photos are out of reach, I build a memory palace to house my mother’s vintage gown, the Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat, my silk bouquet, Korean posters of Say Anything, and my friend’s very unflattering camo hat that we all took turns wearing.

This is one strategy, and maybe it’s a little too abstract for some. It’s also fine to frame those happy memories in a more physical way; maybe keeping a relic of a good night (let’s say a concert ticket) could also do the trick.

From where I’m standing, though, it’s specificity that seems to be the key. You want to isolate and access a happy memory, versus treading into the vague waters of nostalgia-fueled depression. Rest assured that the time surrounding my 26th birthday wasn't the happiest—in fact, it might have been the most miserable of my life—but begone, nostalgia waves! I don’t have time to go there.

I’d rather retreat to the good times captured in my Instax stack. There’s no quick fix to depression, we all know that, but maybe those positive memories are the hug we need to get through the day. It’s worth a shot, because after all, why wouldn’t we want to go back to a place where we’re loved?

If you think you're the only one battling mental health issues, you can think again. Female celebs are getting real about their struggles—and that’s a great thing. And here are six things a psychiatrist says everyone should know about mental health.

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