Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses

Abstract

Recalling happy memories elicits positive feelings and enhances one’s wellbeing, suggesting a potential adaptive function in using this strategy for coping with stress. In two studies, we explored whether recalling autobiographical memories that have a positive content—that is, remembering the good times—can dampen the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis stress response. Participants underwent an acute stressor or control task followed by autobiographical memory recollection (of only positive or neutral valence). Across both studies, recalling positive, but not neutral, memories resulted in a dampened cortisol rise and reduced negative affect. Further, individuals with greater self-reported resiliency showed enhanced mood, despite stress exposure. During positive reminiscence, we observed engagement of corticostriatal circuits previously implicated in reward processing and emotion regulation, and stronger connectivity between ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices as a function of positivity. These findings highlight the restorative and protective function of self-generated positive emotions via memory recall in the face of stress.

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Figure 1: Schematic of the experimental procedure and timeline of neuroendocrine assessments for day 2 (stress manipulation or control task).
Figure 2: Neuroendocrine responses to acute stress during the behavioural study.
Figure 3: Resiliency mediates the relationship between emotion ratings during memory recall and subsequent mood for individuals in the stresspositive group.
Figure 4: Neuroendocrine responses to acute stress in the fMRI study.
Figure 5: Neural activity during the recall of autobiographical memory under acute stress.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (DA027764). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. The authors thank J. Bhanji for helpful comments and discussion, and H. Manglani and E. Kim for assistance with data collection.

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M.E.S. and M.R.D. designed the experiments. M.E.S. performed the experiments and analysed the data. M.E.S. and M.R.D. wrote the manuscript and approved the final version for publication.

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Correspondence to Mauricio R. Delgado.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary Results, Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figures 1–3, Supplementary Tables 1–4, Supplementary References. (PDF 328 kb)

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Speer, M., Delgado, M. Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0093 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0093

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