Encoding Specificity: Why it's Hard to Pull Yourself Out a Bad Mood

Fraser deans
By Fraser Deans on Apr 22 2020

Feeling shitty sucks. Depression or a low mood often feels like it lasts a really really long time.

As days or weeks pass by it's hard to imagine a time when things were better.

“I can’t remember the last time I was happy.” When will it end?

Well, it probably wasn't as long ago as it feels.

A psychological principle called Encoding Specificity may be to blame. Understanding encoding specificity, and developing a toolset to combat it, helps shorten periods of depression.

Encoding specificity is the principle that memories are more easily retrieved when external conditions at the time of retrieval are similar to conditions in existence at the time the memory was created.

Simply, your current environment and mental state determines which kinds of memories are easy to retrieve.

This includes mood.

People in bad moods find it easier to remember bad events. Likewise, people in good moods find it easier to recall good events.

This is a worrying psychological principle. It has the potential to exacerbate and elongate periods of depressive moods. If it's harder to remember activities that put you in a good mood, then you're less likely to do them. Resulting in longer periods of bad mood.

3 tips to pull yourself out of a bad mood

1. Keep a mood journal

Journal writing offers many mental benefits. Journaling gives us a super power – the power to see our thoughts outside of our heads. When outside our minds, we can reflect and clarify our thoughts. Plus, with a journal, we’re reminded of the different sides of ourselves. The version of you today was different from the version of you yesterday and both are different from the version of you a year ago. If you’re struggling to remember a time when you were happy, consult the journal. A quick flick through a journal will remind you of occasions you felt great and grateful. We recommend checking in with yourself to label your emotions.

I personally now have over 1000 moods in Thyself. My mood tracking shows me that I am not my emotions and my mood varies. On darker days I easily remind myself of moments that brought me joy. With a mood journal I escape the limiting mindset exacerbated by encoding specificity.

2. Spend time in your 'happy place’

Physical environments play a role in encoding our memories too. We all have our favourite spaces and places – standing by a tree you admire, listening to a melodic birdsong, becoming awestruck by a familiar vista or chilling in your favourite museum. Take yourself there to break the emotional binds and remember what good feels like. Keep a note of your favourite places or star them on Google Maps.

3. Play music you associate with good times

The level and type of noise is also encoded with our memories. Listening to a genre of music you listen to when you’ve experienced positive emotions can also allow you to remember enjoyable events. Maybe you recall a youthful summer, a concert with friends or a cross country road trip – stick on some beats and feel a gentle smile tug at your cheeks.

Try Thyself if you’d like to beat your own encoding specificity. Thyself is the mental health toolkit for people who prioritise their mental health.


[1] Associative encoding and retrieval: Weak and strong cues

[2] Mood congruent memory: The role of affective focus and gender

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