Health outcomes and cognitive aspects of recalled negative life events

  • Suedfeld P
  • Pennebaker J
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OBJECTIVE: Integrative complexity reflects the level of intellectual resources allocated to coping with a particular situation or problem. This study explored whether the recall of very unpleasant memories would occur at a different level of complexity from that of neutral memories, and whether differences in complexity would be related to health outcomes. METHODS: A series of essays, some dealing with negative life experiences and others with trivial events, had been written by undergraduates for a previous study. Complexity scores of these two types of essays were compared, and were correlated with a composite measure of well-being (immunological assays, visits to the Student Health Center, and self-reported distress and substance abuse). RESULTS: Essays about negative experiences were significantly higher in complexity, implying the allocation of more cognitive effort to the narrative. Subjects who wrote about negative events showed a significant relationship between complexity and improvement in wellness: Complexity scores closer to the median were associated with the most improvement (p < 0.05). CONCLUSIONS: Recalling negative life experiences engages increased cognitive effort, just as coping with negative experiences does. However, both low and high cognitive involvement are associated with lower levels of well-being than is a moderate level. The findings have implications for the relation between cognitive and emotional processes and between cognitive processes and health, as well as for the specific issue of how emotionally negative events are reconstructed in memory.

Author-supplied keywords

  • *Adaptation, Psychological
  • *Cognition
  • *Life Change Events
  • *Recall
  • Arousal
  • Female
  • Human
  • Male
  • Personality Assessment
  • Problem Solving
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders: *psychology
  • Sick Role
  • Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

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  • P Suedfeld

  • J W Pennebaker

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