Can you help protect yourself from the memory of traumatic events? A new study suggests that, by concentrating on concrete details as you live through the event, you can reduce the number of intrusive memories later experienced.
The study, aimed particularly at those who deliberately expose themselves to the risk of PTSD (e.g., emergency workers, military personnel, journalists in conflict zones), involved 50 volunteers who rated their mood before watching several films with traumatic scenes. After the first film, they rated their feelings. For the next four films, half the participants were asked to consider abstract questions, such as why such situations happened. The other half were asked to consider concrete questions, such as what they could see and hear and what needed to be done from that point. Afterward, they gave another rating on their mood. Finally, they were asked to watch a final film in the same way as they had practiced, rating feelings of distress and horror as they had for the first film.
The volunteers were then given a diary to record intrusive memories of anything they had seen in the films for the next week.
Both groups, unsurprisingly, saw their mood decline after the films, but those who had been practicing concrete thinking were less affected, and also experienced less intense feelings of distress and horror when watching the final film. Abstract thinkers experienced nearly twice as many intrusive memories in the following week.
The study follows previous findings that emergency workers who adopted an abstract processing approach showed poorer coping, and that those who processed negative events using abstract thinking experienced a longer period of low mood, compared to those using concrete thinking.
Further study to confirm this finding is of course needed in real-life situations, but this does suggest a strategy that people who regularly experience trauma could try. It is particularly intriguing because, on the face of it, it would seem like quite the wrong strategy. Distancing yourself from the trauma you're experiencing, trying to see it as something less real, seems a more obvious coping strategy. This study suggests it is exactly the wrong thing to do.
It also seems likely that this tendency to use concrete or abstract processing may reflect a more general trait. Self-reported proneness to intrusive memories in everyday life was significantly correlated with intrusive memories of the films. Perhaps we should all think about the way we view the world, and those of us who tend to take a more abstract approach should try paying more attention to concrete details. This is, after all, something I've been recommending in the context of fighting sensory impairment and age-related cognitive decline!
Abstract thinking certainly has its place, but as I've said before, we need flexibility. Effective cognitive management is about tailoring your style of thinking to the task's demands.
(2016). “Why” or “How”: The Effect of Concrete Versus Abstract Processing on Intrusive Memories Following Analogue Trauma.
Behavior Therapy. 47(3), 404 - 415.