Earlier this year, I was updated on the latest new in the treatment of depression and PTSD. I use EMDR a lot, but this was an interesting addition to the therapeutic tools available. Empirical research show that people who remember specifics, like the color on your shoes when you were 8, or how an animal looked at the zoo, have happier life. For depression this “steals” meaning, if you can`t see earlies experiences, its also hard to imagine a future. When not depressed, most people will create emotional picture of what they dream of: Like how you will look in a wedding dress, the people who would come, and you might even dream up your husband to be. What would life be without memories connected to emotions?
Autobiographical memory and emotional disorder
Autobiographical memory refers to our recollection of events in our past. Disturbed patterns of autobiographical memory, particularly for emotional events, are a cardinal feature of affective disorders. These difficulties range from intrusive flashbacks of traumatic events such as war, accidents, or interpersonal violence, in sufferers of PTSD, to ruminations upon general negative autobiographical themes such as failure and worthlessness in depression.
Such patterns not only define the mental lives of patients but drive the onset and maintenance of their problems. Consequently, clinical interventions that can target and reverse these maladaptive memory processes have enormous potential. One of our key research goals is therefore to elucidate the nature of autobiographical recollection in depression and PTSD, and to use these insights to refine and develop novel memory-focused treatments. Below are a couple of examples from this work.
Memory Specificity Training (MEST)
What are we investigating?
Patients with depression and PTSD find it relatively difficult to bring to mind specific, detailed auotbiographical memories of discrete emotional past events. Researc has shown that access to such memories is important in everyday mental life for problem-solving, social communication, emotional processing of distressing experiences, and future planning. Unsurprisingly then, reduced access to specific autobiographical memories disrupts day-to-day cognitive fucntioning and therefore plays a significant role in maintaining depression and in the onset of PTSD (Williams et al., 2007).
What are we doing?
These research findings suggest an elegantly simple clinical treatment for depression and PTSD – training patients to become more specific in their emotional autobiographical recollection. Memory Specificity Training (MEST) is a 4-session group clinical intervention with precisely this aim. Patients undergoing MEST simply practice retrieving emotional and neutral specific memories to a variety of cues, both in session and at home.
What have we found?
We have conducted two clinical treatment trials of MEST. One for individuals with depression (Neshat-Doost et al., 2012) and one for individuals with PTSD. We found that MEST was successful in both cases in markedly reducing pateints’ symptoms and that the level of symptom improvement was directly related to how good they had become at retrieving specific memories.
Why is this important?
These findings are important for a number of resons. Firstly, the underline the importance for mental health of how we recollect autobiograhical memories. Secondly, MESt is a very straightforward treatment that is easy to deliver, and thus suitable for less experienced therapists, and cost-effective due to its group format. It is also suitbale for a rnage of clinical settings; for example our clinical trial with patients with PTSD was carried out in a shelter for refugees in a war zone.