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Updated 10:00 AM December 3, 2007
 

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  Research
Selective memory helpful short-term but exhibits
harmful long-term effects

People who block out unpleasant memories or issues may enjoy short-term gains but emotionally detaching themselves causes long-term consequences, a psychology researcher says.

Robin Edelstein, an assistant psychology professor, focuses her research on social/personality psychology, memories and emotions. She and her colleagues studied victims of sexual abuse 15 years after their cases went to trial to see how many still were willing to talk about what happened to them and whether victims block out such memories.

About 80 percent brought up the crimes when asked if they'd ever been a sexual abuse victim, but 20 percent avoided mentioning the painful memory. Edelstein found that people who were victims at a younger age and those whose crimes were less severe were less likely to talk about what happened to them.

It's the people who block out or avoid painful memories, those who are detached and more avoidant, who most worry Edelstein.

"Most avoidant people who are in relationships are less happy," Edelstein says. "While avoiding things can be a helpful short-term strategy, not paying attention to certain things for extended periods of time might be bad for your mental health with consequences for your physical health. All the effort to avoid anxiety actually creates more anxiety later."

In current popular culture, the "Grey's Anatomy" character Christina Yang, who drove away her fiance by keeping him emotionally distant, is a classic example of someone who is avoidant, she says. In last year's season finale, the character was left at the alter and felt emotionally devastated while simultaneously feeling relieved enough to declare, "I'm free."

Edelstein estimates that up to 25 percent of people can be avoidant in some form.

"They go to these great efforts to hide or forget things so they won't be hurt," Edelstein says. "To ignore something constantly, you have to actually be very vigilant to find it, then work to cover it up. If it's a situation you can control like not seeing a certain kind of movie, you can just avoid the movie but there are many situations you can't control."

In relationships, avoidant people can put off discussing issues that might cause an argument, only postponing the inevitable and leading to a more serious confrontation later, she says.

On the other end of the spectrum are people who do recognize and deal with issues but spend nearly all of their time over-thinking them without actually acting on them.

"Ruminators are people who go to the other extreme," she says. "They are the ones who overthink by trying not to think about it but that only makes them think about it more and they think about it over and over. Those overthinkers have it the hardest."

People with a healthy support system have friends or family they can talk with about difficult issues, Edelstein says. The healthiest solution is to deal with an issue, take action and move on.

"The best solution is to do something about it rather than just thinking about it or hiding it," she says.

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