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How Trauma Makes It Harder to Suppress Unwanted Emotional Memories

How Trauma Makes It Harder to Suppress Unwanted Emotional Memories

New research suggests exposure to trauma makes it more difficult for the brain to suppress unwanted emotional memories. The experience of trauma appears to lead to neural and behavioral disruptions in the brain that may contribute to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is characterized by intense reliving of the trauma that is repetitive, intrusive and incapacitating. The inability to suppress unwanted memories may be a strong contributor to the behavioral manifestation of PTSD.

Prior studies have shown that healthy individuals can actively suppress emotional memories while individuals with PTSD frequently experience unwanted memories of their traumatic experiences, even when making concentrated efforts to avoid them.

In the new study, researchers addressed the behavioral and neural effects of memory suppression among individuals with PTSD – a perspective that has been underreported in the past. Investigators used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine memory suppression in three groups: those with PTSD; those who experienced trauma without PTSD and controls with no trauma exposure or PTSD.

Their findings, which appear in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, are meaningful as trauma-exposed participants (regardless of PTSD status) were less likely to successfully suppress memory than non-trauma-exposed controls.

“Neuroimaging data revealed that trauma-exposed individuals showed reduced activation in the right middle frontal gyrus, a critical region for memory suppression, during a memory suppression task and were less likely to successfully suppress memory compared to non-trauma exposed individuals.

These results suggest that trauma exposure is associated with neural and behavioral disruptions in memory suppression and point to the possibility that difficulty in active suppression of memories may be just one of several likely factors contributing to the development of PTSD,” explained lead author Danielle R. Sullivan, PhD, Boston University School of Medicine.

Sullivan is also affiliated with the National Center for PTSD, and VA Boston Healthcare System.

Source: Boston University School of Medicine/EurekAlert

How Trauma Makes It Harder to Suppress Unwanted Emotional Memories

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2019). How Trauma Makes It Harder to Suppress Unwanted Emotional Memories. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 5 Mar 2019 (Originally: 6 Mar 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 5 Mar 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.