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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

Do You Know How Overgeneral Memory Can Impact Depression?

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: May 11th 2011

depressed girl We’ve all done it, just some of us are better at it than others.  It’s the type of memory that helps out in times of trauma to not recall specific events that would reignite the traumatic memories. However, when it comes to depression, one of the signature pieces of overgeneral memory retrieval and it’s critical to be aware of it.


Mark Williams, PhD, a clinical psychologist and researcher at Oxford University, came across this term in the 1980’s when asking people to recall certain memories and they gave him vague responses. The New York Times covered a recent study of Dr. Williams and his colleagues where they prompt participants with a specific word and ask them to recall a single specific memory.  

In response to the word “rejection” one participant responded, A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with my boss, and my ideas were rejected.” Another said, “My brothers are always talking about going on holiday without me.”

You can see how the second response is vague, it’s generalizing over time, and it’s not a specific event. When we’re depressed, the mind is already overly susceptible to an automatic negativity bias and so it is primed to pick up on negative terms or events.

Now imagine the mind picks up on these negative terms or events and then generalizes memories of the past that support that negative thought. So, you go to the coffee shop and the barista gets your order wrong. This event perhaps then prompts an overgeneral memory about how people in your life never really pay attention to your needs and suddenly your frustration builds and the world becomes a bit grayer.

While overgeneral memory has its place, like in times of trauma or perhaps in times of remembering the good times. However, it’s also a slippery slope to depression and anxiety.

What can you do?

Ground to reality - The first thing needs to be grounding to the reality of the present moment. One of the more effective ways to do this is just allowing the feeling in the body to be an anchor to the now. Breathe in, acknowledge the feeling, breathe out, and recognize you are here.

Search for other memories - Ask yourself, are there other memories that speak to an alternative viewpoint. In other words, in respect to the example I gave earlier, are there instances in life where people have paid attention to your needs?

Have compassion – You may just have a natural inclination toward a negative sort of overgeneral memory, so as best you can, be kind to yourself when you notice this happening. This patience and kindness will create a greater sense of resiliency.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from. 

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

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