Using Imagination to Reframe Negative Memories: An Exploration into Emotion Regulation with Counterfactual Thinking
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Counterfactual thinking is a spontaneously occurring process that involves imagining alternative versions of events that have already transpired. By creating “what if” and “if only” scenarios, people use the emotions of these new simulations to alter their perception of what actually occurred. These emotional changes then influence later behavior. While this process is largely automatic, counterfactual thinking can be intentionally utilized to alter the emotional response to a memory. By examining counterfactual thinking as an emotion regulation technique, we can begin to use this method to combat behaviors such as worry and rumination that are associated with maladaptive mental simulation. In my dissertation, I first provide a process model of counterfactual thinking, complete with the emotional consequences of each step, that is then compared to the existing process model of emotion regulation. I then present a series of experiments utilizing counterfactual thinking in a variety of emotion regulation contexts. Using self-report, psychophysiology, and functional magnetic imaging, this research begins to integrate the fields of counterfactual thinking and emotion regulation. Through this work, I find that creating alternative versions of events can effectively reduce the negativity of an emotional response to a memory. Importantly, intentional counterfactual thinking is especially effective for people who report higher levels of trait anxiety symptomology. Possible mechanisms and future implications of regulatory counterfactual thinking are discussed with suggestions on how to better integrate the areas of counterfactual thinking and emotion regulation.
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