Reducing unwanted trauma memories by imaginal exposure or autobiographical memory elaboration: an analogue study of memory processes.
Ehlers A., Mauchnik J., Handley R.
Unwanted memories of traumatic events are a core symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. A range of interventions including imaginal exposure and elaboration of the trauma memory in its autobiographical context are effective in reducing such unwanted memories. This study explored whether priming for stimuli that occur in the context of trauma and evaluative conditioning may play a role in the therapeutic effects of these procedures. Healthy volunteers (N = 122) watched analogue traumatic and neutral picture stories. They were then randomly allocated to 20 min of either imaginal exposure, autobiographical memory elaboration, or a control condition designed to prevent further processing of the picture stories. A blurred picture identification task showed that neutral objects that preceded traumatic pictures in the stories were subsequently more readily identified than those that had preceded neutral stories, indicating enhanced priming. There was also an evaluative conditioning effect in that participants disliked neutral objects that had preceded traumatic pictures more. Autobiographical memory elaboration reduced the enhanced priming effect. Both interventions reduced the evaluative conditioning effect. Imaginal exposure and autobiographical memory elaboration both reduced the frequency of subsequent unwanted memories of the picture stories.