And again: film

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And again: film
And again: film

And again: film off

Reexperiencing brief but stressful events in your mind - for example being given the right of way on a country road or being insulted by a stranger - is not only unpleasant, the memory sometimes has tangible physical consequences. It can cause a transient increase in blood pressure, even days after the event. These reactions can also provide insight into how some people best deal with bad memories. However, over time, vivid memories can prove beneficial to both mind and body. That's the thesis of a new study led by psychologists at the University of California, San Diego. "Underlying this is a simple therapeutic idea: remembering and thinking about unpleasant events is painful, and your blood pressure rises in response," said Nicholas Christenfeld."However, once you process the event, the next time the experience is less painful."

The studies, presented at the Society of Behavioral Medicine Annual Conference on March 26, 1998, not only support the idea that a popular form of therapy - reliving painful experiences mentally within a comfortable environment - actually works. They also suggest that lingering unpleasant thoughts could be harmful to your he alth. "Having uncomfortable thoughts isn't necessarily negative," Christenfeld said, "but if you're entertaining uncomfortable thoughts that lead to a physiological response, it could be bad for your heart."

Also involved in the study were Laura M. Glynn, a psychology student, Ebbe B. Ebbeson, a professor of psychology at the University of California, and William Gerin, a professor at Cornell University Medical Center. In a series of studies, the researchers describe twenty subjects who were asked to perform mental arithmetic tasks. While solving the arithmetic problems, the subjects were constantly asked to work faster and faster. Each subject's heart rate and blood pressure were continuously monitored throughout the test. "By the end, the test subjects felt that the person doing the test was cold-hearted and downright disgusting," Christenfeld said.

Activity elicited an immediate increase in systolic blood pressure in subjects, an average of 27 mm of mercury systolic increase. (At rest, the systolic blood pressure was initially 110 mm, increasing to 137 mm during exercise.) Afterwards, subjects were asked to vividly recall details of the experience at two different time intervals. Ten test subjects were asked to do a so-called "brooding" task just 20 minutes later, and another ten were asked to do the task a week later.

The results showed a clear association between rumination over the upsetting experience and an increase in blood pressure. After both time intervals, the systolic blood pressure increased by approximately 12-15 mm of mercury, approximately half the increase produced by the original experience. "So it was irrelevant how long ago the event was," said Christenfeld. "When subjects are asked to think again [about the tests they conducted], the response was always clear."

As a follow-up to this study, the 10 subjects who relived their experience 20 minutes later were asked to come back to the lab a week later. They were asked to think about the unpleasant event one more time. In this experiment, however, blood pressure did not increase significantly in any of the participants. "In other words, we had two groups of people who reappeared after a week," Christenfeld said."One group was already past the rumination stage and did not show any increase in blood pressure. The other group, which had not yet processed their experience, showed a strong reaction."

The results suggest that the self-imposed compulsion to think about a negative experience can change its impact from a highly charged and emotional experience to a more abstract and less distressing experience. "Imagine how excited you were when you first thought about what happened on the highway this morning," Christenfeld said. "The second time you think about it, things get a little more abstract. It's cooler brooding now."

"This is all extremely preliminary," added the scientist. "But we think these results show that the 'count to ten first to get angry' rule doesn't work because you can still get upset about it a week later…. But if you think about it for a while, you can look at it a little cooler."

Of course, says Christenfeld, there is an alternative. You can just forget about the upsetting experience, perhaps by getting so busy you just don't think about it anymore. In fact, previous studies have shown that when you turn to tasks that distract you, bad experiences can be pushed aside in your mind. "This is a hotly debated question in therapy," he said. "Some people argue that at some point you'll think about the negative experience, so you might as well do it now in a comfortable environment. In that case, you process your problems, but you have to mope for a while. Other people tell you you should try never to think about it and take your mind off the pain, but then you should be really confident that you really will never think about this problem again."

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