Understanding Self Defining Memories helps dealing with Depression

Dealing with DepressionMental Health Help | dealing with Depression can make life difficult. The more you know about depression, the better you can make your own life.

It is common to hear people complain that they are “lost in life,” don't seem to know who they are anymore, or generally lack a sense of purpose.

For people living with depression or bipolar disorder, there is evidence that disturbances, which are deep rooted in their memories from their past, can play a large part in explaining such identity problems.

According to a previous 2004 study by Blagov and Singer, these disturbances are often due to a phenomena known as “overgeneralization bias,” which is the tendency to recall fewer specific memories than general ones. “Mood congruence bias,” which is the propensity to recall less positive memories than negative ones, also plays a role.

  • Depression Reality | People with depression or bipolar disorder tend to have difficulty remembering specific and positive memories.

The retrieval of Self-Defining Memories (SDM) can be particularly problematic for people with depression or bipolar disorder. SDMs are crystallizations of links between memory and identity and form a special component of autobiographical recollection.

Blagov and Singer referred to SDMs as vivid, emotionally intense and well-rehearsed autobiographical memories. Essentially, SDMs are memories that tell someone what kind of person they are, and serve as a reminder of how and why they came to be that person.

Aurelie Wagener, MS, Marie Boulanger, PhD and Sylvie Blairy, PhD, all of the University of Liege in Belgium, presented a study during last month's British Psychological Society Annual Conference, which was held in Liverpool, United Kingdom.2

Depression StudyThe study compared the characteristics of SDMs between depressed patients, bipolar patients, and healthy subjects. The authors didn't confirm the presence of overgeneralization bias among patients with depression or bipolar disorder, meaning there were no notable disturbances in terms of the specificity of their SDMs. There was also no evidence of contamination, where memories with a positive past construction are ‘contaminated' or recalled within a negative present context.

It was found, however, that mood congruence bias is present in the SDMs of depressed patients. According to Wagener, “They tend to recall more memories with a negative emotional valence than memories with a positive one.” It was also found that depressed and bipolar patients recall fewer SDMs, with a genuine meaning-making component, compared to healthy subjects.

“Meaning-making can be conceptualized as the capacity to evoke a lesson learned about oneself, another or the world due to the SDMs,” explained Wagener.

Other than SDMs, the study also focused on another important aspect of identity, which is known as self-concept clarity (SCC). This is defined as the degree of certainty and confidence concerning self-descriptions.

As well as finding that depressed and bipolar patients recall fewer SDMs with meaning-making content, the study also established that these patients reported lower SCC levels compared to healthy subjects. According to Wagener, this demonstrates that the ability to evoke SDMs with meaning-making is correlated with SCC.

“We believe that SDMs help people improve their self-concept clarity because SDMs are related to the main concerns and values of the individual,” she explained. When patients have problems retrieving SDMs, this can threaten their self-perception and how confident they are in describing themselves.

Wagener also adds that when patients possess a low SCC, they might also demonstrate a poor feeling of self-continuity. “Indeed, they might feel lost, and this could present them with some difficulties in projecting themselves in the future,” she said.

The findings of the clinical study imply that there is a need to improve the recall of SDMs with positive valence for depressed patients, and the recall of SDMs with meaning-making for depressed and bipolar patients. According to Wagener, patients have to ask themselves memory-evoking personal questions, such as ‘What has really mattered in my life since my early childhood?' and ‘Which events have made me who I am today?'

“We believe that the retrieval of SDMs might help patients gain insight of what really matters in their lives. These questions might improve their self-concept clarity,” she added.

TDepression helphe goal of recalling SDMs, Wagener explained, is to enable depressed and bipolar patients to recognize the nature of their main concerns and the values that are important to them. It also enables patients to recall their personal problem-solving techniques. “Recalling SDMs,” she observed, “might also help patients to remember how they solved their problems early on and eventually help them solve current issues.”

Besides asking patients questions that facilitate their memory recall, the participation of physicians and family members during psychotherapies can also be very helpful in this area. According to Wagener, “Doctors and psychologists can help patients retrieve memories that are particularly relevant for their sense of self.

Family members can assist when patients are not able to recall memories on their own. They might suggest some memories, and the patients could then explain these memories more deeply.”

  • Overall, SDMs are a major foundation in the formation of an individual's identity. They are reflections of a person's key life lessons, central goals, values and conflicts.  They often guide our decisions and sense of self-continuity. For people living with depression or bipolar disorder, recalling affirming and meaningful memories can help to re-establish a positive sense of self and thereby assist in their treatment.

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