Distracting Ourselves from Our Stressful Memories
If you are like me, you can vividly recall with great detail an embarrassing or traumatic public speaking experience regardless of how long ago it took place. While I have many tails to tell about public speaking blunders I have made, my most awful experience happened over 30 years ago, yet I can remember it as if it just happened. I was 15 at my first speech tournament…the one my freshmen English teacher “forced” me to attend. During the first 10 seconds of a 10 minute speech on karate, I ripped my pants from zipper to belt loop as I performed a front snap kick. In front of my friends, teachers, parents, and the girl I liked at the time, I stood there with my underwear exposed as I finished my talk.
This teenage experience haunts me to this day. I find myself still ruminating over the embarrassment, fear, and humiliation that I felt that cold, early Saturday morning. However, I recently came across research that has been helpful to me reducing the power this pants ripping event holds over me. Researchers at the University of Illinois have identified a technique that can help people feel better – or at least less bad – about emotional memories such as the ones many of us hold about public speaking. Researchers Florin and Sandra Dolcos found that most people focus on negative personal memories, which in turn makes them feel worse and may even lead to persistent negative outcomes, such as depression or avoidance. Instead, these researchers have found that thinking about contextual elements of the memories can reduce both the short-term and potential long-term effects.
They suggest that if you can think about relational or environmental factors that co-occurred with the negative event, then you, in effect, distract yourself from your rumination and negative feelings. For example, you can think about your friends that were present, the weather at the particular time of the event, etc. They claim that this change in attention “is as simple as shifting the focus in the mental movie of your memories and then letting your mind wander.”
Since so many of us carry negative emotions and associations with speaking due to past experiences, we can benefit from thinking about other aspects of these negative experiences that co-occurred with them. This new focus can release the strong grip these negative experiences have on us. When remembering my pants ripping event, I now focus on my two friends who were in the room and how they were so impressed with my speech that they decided to sign up for karate lessons.