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How an ‘Emotional Hangover’ Affects Your Memory

February 17, 2017

A new study indicates that emotional events may improve memory and affect future experiences.

In the study, conducted by New York University researchers, participants viewed images that stimulated emotion and another set of images that were neutral. One group saw the emotional images first, while the other group first saw the neutral images. Each group saw the two sets of images 10 to 30 minutes apart. Researchers measured participants’ physiological reactions via skin response and brain activity using an MRI. Six hours after the group saw the images, researchers gave them a memory test of the images they had seen.

The study found participants who viewed the emotional images first were able to remember more details about the neutral images, while the other group’s memory wasn’t as sharp. The impact of seeing the emotional images first carried over for 20 to 30 minutes in these participants and influenced how they processed and remembered future non-emotional experiences. Researchers think an “emotional hangover,” as they call it, triggers a mechanism in the brain that enhances memory.

“‘Emotion is a state of mind,” said senior study author Lila Davachi. “These findings make clear that our cognition is highly influenced by preceding experiences and, specifically, that emotional brain states can persist for long periods of time.”

The study also indicates that how a person feels internally also may impact his or her future experiences. Researchers say emotional hangovers can persist for long periods of time and potentially bias how the brain processes new, unrelated information.

Dealing with “Emotional Hangovers”

This study reflects what psychologists see in patients on a daily basis. Think of how many of us have vivid memories of our childhood, or events throughout our lives, especially if it was something traumatic, extremely positive, or life-altering. The emotion tied to these events causes our brains to hold onto key details associated with these moments. We can remember details of that day that normally would be impossible for us.

Emotions color our world. If we’ve had a difficult experience, then moving forward similar experiences can bring us feelings of dread or anger. Think about someone who has experienced serious turbulence during a flight and now has anxiety every time they think about having to fly again, or someone who had a bad experience with a particular dish at a restaurant and now never wants to eat that dish again there or anywhere else. Part of dealing with this phenomenon is learning techniques to process the original event, such as cognitive reframing and stress management tools. Cognitive reframing involves identifying irrational thoughts and then debunking them in your mind. For example, for the person who experienced turbulence on the flight it would mean acknowledging that thousands of flights happen every day and people arrive safely. Accepting that turbulence might happen again, but airplanes are designed to withstand this occurrence. This technique takes time and practice, but along with stress management tools such as meditation, thought awareness, and journaling they can help you deal with emotional events and the aftermath.

The study shows just how much power the brain has to recall events when there are strong emotions attached to them. Obviously, this may be a good thing in some cases, such as helping us avoid dangerous situations, but most of the time it may lead to high levels of unnecessary anxiety. Recognizing these emotional patterns and leveraging cognitive and stress management techniques helps you control how you feel and how you react to these events. Taking charge in this way is one key to maintaining good emotional health.

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