AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MEMORY SPECIFICITY AND AFFECT REGULATION: COPING WITH A NEGATIVE LIFE EVENT


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Abstract

Two decades of research have shown that depressed patients experience significant difficulties retrieving specific autobiographical memories. Importantly, reduced autobiographical memory (AM) specificity is a known vulnerability factor for depression and is predictive of a more chronic course. One of the models that has been put forward to explain the origin of this reduced specificity is the affect-regulation model, which assumes that being less specific might help to prevent negative or painful emotions by recalling events in a less specific way. This avoidant memory style might have beneficial effects in the short run (less emotional impact of stressful events) but is detrimental in the long run. The affect-regulation model, and more in particular the beneficial short-term effect of reduced memory specificity, was investigated in a prospective study. Students were followed over a period of 9 weeks after they failed at their first exams at university. In line with the affect-regulation model, memory specificity predicted the course of symptoms that were experienced as a result of failing these exams. The less specific the student, the less durable the emotional distress over this 9-week period. The correlational nature of this study limits to some extent the conclusions that can be drawn. The results offer support for the affect-regulation account of reduced autobiographical memory specificity.

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