A traumatic experience can ruin a person’s life — but it may very well also do the opposite. Most people recover quickly from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and report having a better mental health than before the traumatic episode. Now, a new study suggests that this happens because the trauma triggers a sort of mental training that primes survivors for the next such event. In doing so, the survivors gain better control over their own minds and can experience significant mental growth.
Trauma — training the mind for resilience
For the study, two groups, each comprising of 48 undergraduates, were tasked with playing various word games by researchers at Bard College and the University of Cambridge. Among the participants, some had experienced relatively significant trauma, such as witnessing or experiencing an accident, violence, death in the family, and so on.
During one task, the participants had to view a set of 60 pairs of words, which consisted of a neutral word (for instance, “violin”) and either a neutral or negative response word (“street” or “corpse”). The participants were allowed to go through three training cycles before they had to recall at least half of the response words. After the training, the real experiment began: a so-called “Think/No-Think” trial.
What this means is that when a cue word was flashed on a screen in the color green, the participants had to say the response word as fast as possible. However, if the cue word appeared in red, they had to avoid saying the word or even thinking about it for the next four seconds. Finally, the researchers put a twist on the recall tests by introducing a new semantic cue word plus the initial letter of the response word (e.g. “anatomy c____”, which should read as “anatomy corpse”). This latter test was designed to sidestep the original cue-target association and assess memory inhibition.
The research team found that people in both high and low trauma groups were just as good at the initial word association test. However, those in the high trauma group were significantly better at the “No Think” trials, demonstrating a more robust ability to forget specific words on request. This performance was equally good for both neutral and negative words, suggesting this is a generalized suppression skill.
The ability to inhibit certain memories may help people who have experienced severe trauma to become more resilient. This general inhibitory control mechanism could also help post-PTSD individuals to suppress unwanted emotions and actions, making them more disciplined, focused, and daring in other aspects of their life.
The findings have important implications for the treatment of PTSD. Standard cognitive-behavioral therapies for PTSD encourage patients to face their traumas, the idea being that remembering traumatic events will make them less distressing. While the authors agree that this certain therapy is important, their findings suggest that it may also be beneficial to suppress certain memories. What’s more, it may be that patients who don’t respond to standard treatment and develop chronic PTSD may have deficits in such inhibitory control.
“Our findings suggest that traumatic experiences – as horrible as they may be – might naturally contribute to the adaptation of cognitive control skills, thereby improving survivors’ later resilience, at least [for] those who experienced only moderate levels of trauma,” wrote the authors in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.