New focus in trauma response

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder research at Flinders is unlocking a complex side to possible treatment.

The researchers say the little recognised effect of ‘non-memories’ may compound troubles for patients, and hamper effective treatment programs.

They believe that tackling this hidden problem could be an important step in improving outcomes for PTSD sufferers.

“The complexity of thoughts affecting people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may be compounded by non-memories that potentially strengthen people’s beliefs that a feared outcome is likely to occur and contribute to a sense that ‘worse is to come’,” says research lead Dr Jacinta Oulton, from the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Flinders University.

“As a result, the symptoms of PTSD may intensify and be less likely to subside over time.”

The research findings, covered in a new paper – PTSD and the role of Spontaneous Elaborative “non-memories”, by Dr Jacinta Oulton, with Flinders University’s Dr Melanie Takarangi and Professor Reg Nixon, with Dr Deryn Strange from New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice – has been published in the US journal Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.

Participants in the study who had experienced a traumatic life event described their spontaneously occurring traumatic thoughts – both memories and also detailed thoughts or images about the trauma that did not occur, called non-memories.

These non-memories included imagined future events related to the trauma and exaggerated versions of the trauma itself, and may provide a big stumbling block to PTSD recovery.

Participants rated their involuntary memories and non-memories associated with a trauma as comparably vivid and distressing, meaning that they were largely indistinguishable from each other in terms of how they were experienced.

Current theories of PTSD fail to account for the role of elaborative non-memories in PTSD, but this new research suggests that the complexity of thoughts affecting people suffering from PTSD may be compounded by non-memories, and needs to be addressed further to improve existing treatments.

“We hope that our results will encourage further research into the relationship between PTSD symptoms and non-memories among clinical populations, and using experimental paradigms,” says Dr Oulton.

“A broader understanding of what drives the relationship between PTSD and non-memories may help to develop more effective PTSD treatments.”

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