The Effect of Processing Mode on Intrusive Memories and Emotional Reactivity following Exposure to Trauma
: An Experimental Analogue Study

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Clinical Psychology


Background and aims: Evidence suggests that the mode in which traumatic events are processed may influence the development of PTSD, although experimental evidence is lacking. It is crucial to discover what could potentially protect against the development of symptoms such as intrusive memories, since this would allow for the development of evidence-based prevention programmes for at-risk groups. Using a trauma film paradigm (Holmes & Bourne, 2008), the current study investigated the effect of processing mode training (abstract versus concrete) during exposure to an analogue trauma on the subsequent development of intrusive memories, the hallmark feature of PTSD. It also investigated its effect on emotional reactivity to a subsequent traumatic stimulus and whether potential vulnerability factors (e.g. rumination, dissociation, sleep problems, self-reported proneness to intrusions) were related to the frequency of intrusions developed. Method: Fifty-one participants were trained to process traumatic films in an abstract or concrete mode. In the abstract condition, participants were trained to focus on the overall meaning and implications of the events and on questions such as ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?’ In the concrete condition, participants were trained to focus on contextual details and the sequence of events and on questions such as ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ Participants rated their emotional reactions to pre- and post-training test films. They then recorded in a diary the number of intrusive memories they experienced in relation to the film clips over the subsequent week and completed the Impact of Events Scale-Revised (IES-R; Weiss & Marmar, 1997) one week later. Results: As predicted, participants in the concrete group reported fewer intrusive memories in response to the film clips over the subsequent week and lower IES-R scores compared with the abstract group. They also showed reduced emotional reactivity (distress and horror) in response to a post-training film clip although this did not extend to subjective ratings of arousal and negative affect. Self-reported proneness to intrusive memories and pre-existing sleep difficulties significantly predicted intrusive memories, whereas trait rumination and dissociation did not. Conclusions: Overall, findings suggest that training people to adopt a concrete mode of processing during exposure to analogue trauma may protect against the development of intrusive memories and have important implications for the development of preventative programmes for at-risk occupational groups.
Date of Award2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJennifer Wild (Supervisor) & Patrick Smith (Supervisor)

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