- Awkward moments don’t have to follow you around forever.
- To prevent so-called “cringe attacks,” try focusing on the non-emotional details of the memory.
- A 2015 study cited in Melissa Dahl’s “Cringeworthy” suggests this strategy can help take your mind off unwanted emotions.
Even if you’ve never used the term “cringe attacks,” you know what it means. There you are, working, working out, maybe trying to sleep – and out of nowhere, something triggers your memory of that time.
That time you walked out of the bathroom trailing toilet paper. That time you burped, loudly, in the middle of a staff meeting. Now you can’t get it out of your head, and your cheeks are burning as though it’s happening all over again.
I first came across the phrase “cringe attacks” in Melissa Dahl’s book “Cringeworthy,” which explores the science of awkwardness in everyday life. (You can read the excerpt on cringe attacks over on The Cut, where Dahl is an editor.)
Helpfully, Dahl also provides a trick for diminishing the intensity of cringe attacks, if not eliminating them entirely. Instead of focusing on how embarrassed you felt in the moment, think instead of the neutral context, like what you were wearing that day (assuming that wasn’t the embarrassing part).
This strategy is based on a small study, published 2015 in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, which Dahl cites in “Cringeworthy.”
Researchers asked a group of young men to share emotionally resonant negative and positive memories. Weeks later, those participants were given cues to trigger those memories while their brains were being scanned. Some participants were asked to remember the emotional aspect of the event; others were asked to remember the context.
As it turned out, when participants focused on the context instead of their feelings, they were better able to regulate their emotions.
Focusing on non-emotional details may be a better option than pretending you don’t feel anything
One of the study authors, Florin Dolcos at the University of Illinois, said in a statement: “We found that instead of thinking about your emotions during a negative memory, looking away from the worst emotions and thinking about the context, like a friend who was there, what the weather was like, or anything else non-emotional that was part of the memory, will rather effortlessly take your mind away from the unwanted emotions associated with that memory.”
Interestingly, study co-author Sanda Dolcos, also at the University of Illinois, said that this tactic is an alternative to strategies like suppressing your emotions, i.e. pretending you don’t feel anything. “Suppression is bottling up your emotions, trying to put them away in a box. This is a strategy that can be effective in the short term, but in the long run, it increases anxiety and depression,” she said.
Focusing on the non-emotional context of a memory, however, “is as simple as shifting the focus in the mental movie of your memories and then letting your mind wander,” she added.
And if you’re looking for other anti-cringe strategies, take a tip from some Redditors who have been there (and been there and been there).
“I just tell myself, ‘Happened in the past, can’t change it. Learn and move on,'” writes Otofon. “Just let the memories flow, and once it’s over, forget it and go about your day.”
Another, anonymous Redditor advises cringers to distract themselves by asking, “Is there something that I am supposed to be doing right now?”