New research suggests that experience with adversity improves control over unwanted memories. A recent publication reviews the evidence.
After traumatic experiences, survivors often experience intrusive memories that undermine their peace of mind. Although approximately 7% to 8% of people develop persistent PTSD in the wake of trauma, most people recover. This observation raises a fundamental question about the nature of this remission: Why do intrusions decline in these individuals? Does this remission reflect a passive forgetting that happens to all memories? Or might people’s early efforts to cope with intrusions help enhance mental functioning to handle new challenges? Put simply, is it that “Time heals all wounds” or “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger?” Across two experiments reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, psychologists from the University of Cambridge and Bard College found that college students reporting a relatively greater history of real-life trauma exhibited evidence of an enhanced ability to inhibit both negative and neutral memories created in the laboratory. These findings raise the possibility that, given proper training, individuals can learn to better manage intrusive experiences and are broadly consistent with the view that moderate adversity can foster resilience later in life. And traumatic experiences—as horrible as they may be—might naturally contribute to the adaptation of cognitive control skills, thereby improving many survivors’ later resilience, at least those who experienced only moderate levels of trauma.
Read the full report in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General or a summary in The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. This research has also been featured on PsyPost, cited by Psychology Today, and discussed on the Researcher Radio podcast.