Painful Non-memories May Interfere With Treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Painful Non-memories May Interfere With Treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

by Dr. Lakshmi Venkataraman on Jul 27 2018 4:39 PM
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  • Many persons who have had a traumatic experience during their lifetime suffer from a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD
  • Patients with PTSD keep having automatic and repeatedly occurring imaginary thoughts or non-memories of things that did not occur during the trauma but which they fear may happen to them in future
  • Dealing with these painful non-memories or imagined fears and thoughts may improve patient recovery in post-traumatic stress disorder
Distressing and painful non-memories (or false memories) may be interfering with effective treatment and patient recovery in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) according to a recent study conducted by scientists from Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia
“The complexity of thoughts affecting people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may be compounded (made worse) by non-memories that can possibly strengthen people’s beliefs that a feared outcome (event) is likely to occur and contribute to a sense or feeling that ‘worse is to come’,” explains lead author Dr Jacinta Oulton of an article that appeared in in the journal Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice. She further adds “As a result, the symptoms of PTSD may intensify and be less likely to subside over time.” The other authors of the article entitled– PTSD and the role of Spontaneous Elaborative “non-memories”, were Dr Melanie Takarangi, Professor Reg Nixon and Deryn Strange.


Aim of Study

  • To evaluate if persons who suffered a traumatic event followed by PTSD are more likely to have non-memories (imagined fears and worries of events that did not take place) compared to persons who remained healthy after the trauma i.e. did not develop PTSD.
  • To study the aspect of nonmemories that had largely been missed in previous studies related to PTSD


Details and Findings of Study

The study enrolled 393 adults in the United States who had undergone traumatic experiences. They were asked about the occurrence of thoughts and images related to their most traumatic event including various parameters such as the amount of pain and distress these caused to them and to describe the nature of the images that flashed in their mind. They also completed questionnaires that assessed possibly altered mental health state, including symptoms of PTSD.
  • Participants in the study who had experienced a traumatic life event reported naturally occurring distressing thoughts - both memories of things that did happen to them but also elaborate thoughts or images about things that did not take place, termed non-memories
  • These non-memories consisted of imagined traumatic events they thought might occur to them in the future; in addition they tended to magnify the events of the trauma to a greater degree than what had actually happened. The persistence of these non-memories may prove to be a major barrier to PTSD recovery
  • Participants rated their real memories versus non-memories following the trauma as equally painful and graphic, meaning that both memories as well as non-memories produced the same degree of pain and agony and the perceived images of the non-memories were as graphic and clear as the memories of events that did occur
Two persons who were blind to the study, separately rated patient’s responses according to their content in order to remove observer bias.


The result of the study revealed -

  • Real memories were predominant; however, 18.8% of thoughts and images were from non-memories, characterized by imagined fears of likely future events
  • These non-memories were seen more frequently in participants with PTSD than non PTSD participants.
The findings thereby suggest that PTSD patients are more likely to suffer involuntary and vivid non-memories that are as painful and distressing as real memories of traumatic events

“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.”

Tips to Cope With and Overcome Imagined Fears

Real fears can be readily recognised and to some extent tackled but imagined fears cloud our vision. Here are some tips to help such individuals -
  • Constant autosuggestion and positive reinforcement that things are actually not as bad as they seem to be should be practiced
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help if the imagined fears tend to affect the quality of life. Breaking the vicious cycle of negative thinking leading to negative behaviour is important.
  • Severe cases may need medications prescribed by a specialist doctor in addition to CBT.
  1. ‘Non-memories’ hinder PTSD recovery (