Just thinking about a loved one can ease the pain of negative emotions, says a new study. Love also prevents physical and mental health problems for at least a month afterwards.
"Our own memories can often be a significant source of stress. For example, thinking about a recent breakup or underperforming on an exam usually decreases positive mood and increases negative thinking. However, simply thinking about an attachment figure, whether it is one's mother or partner, by either recalling a supportive interaction with them or just viewing their photograph, helps people restore their mood and decreases the tendency to engage in negative thinking," said co-author Vivian Zayas, assistant professor of psychology, in a statement to Cornell University.
For the study, researchers asked participants to think of an unpleasant memory and then to think of a loved one. In one experiment, participants were asked to think about a time when their mothers had supported them.
In a second experiment, participants were asked to see a picture of their mothers. In a third experiment, participants were shown pictures of their romantic partners. The fourth group acted as a control where participants were asked to think about a negative experience and then look at a picture of a stranger.
Researchers found that people are less likely to dwell on negative emotions when they look at a loved one or thought about a good experience. Even a month later, people who thought about their loved one immediately after thinking about a negative experience tended to report less stress and physical problems.
Previous research has shown that seeing an attachment figure (like a romantic partner) can ease pain in people. A previous study showed that activity in a specific region of brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) increases when a person sees a picture of an attachment figure during a painful experience. This part of the brain is involved in safety signaling in humans. The participants in this particular study actually reported less pain when they saw the picture of a long-term romantic partner than participants who were made to see pictures of strangers/objects.
According to researchers in the present study, this technique could be used to help people who can't get over a negative experience and the technique requires very little effort..
"We're showing the effectiveness of a new technique to cope with negative memories. As compared to prior work, it is a much less effortful, automatic and spontaneous strategy," said co-author Emre Selcuk to Cornell University.
"If you're moving to a new city, put a picture of your loved ones on the fridge. If you get a supportive text message from a loved one, just store it in your cell phone so you can retrieve it later," Selcuk said.
The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.