Trauma and Emotion Regulation

The prevailing explanation for trauma-related memory deficits is that they reflect emotion regulation processes that have their roots in early adverse experiences (e.g., Brittlebank et al., 1993; Burnside et al., 2004; Williams, 1996). According to this model, stressful experiences during childhood lead to the development of a trait-like cognitive style that involves avoiding the retrieval of specific details of past events to blunt potentially negative affect (Williams, 1996). Evidence for the claim that poor memory specificity reflects an enduring style comes from studies reporting that overgeneral memory persists several months after depression has remitted (e.g., Brittlebank et al., 1993; Williams & Dritschel, 1988). Moreover, a few recent findings are consistent with the claim that overgeneral memory reflects affect control processes: nontraumatized, nondepressed adults who retrieve fewer specific memories score higher on a measure of "repressive" coping style (Raes et al., 2006), and report less subjective distress following a negative event in the laboratory (Raes, Hermans, & Eelen, 2003; Raes et al., 2006), than individuals who are highly specific in their memories. The affect regulation hypothesis also suggests that while an avoidant cognitive style may reduce distress in the short term, it increases vulnerability to depression in the long term because the inability to recall specific past experiences impairs problem-solving ability (Williams, 1996). Consistent with these claims, a longitudinal study of depressed adults showed that higher rates of overgeneral memory at the outset of the study increased the likelihood that the individuals remained depressed over a 7-month period (Brittlebank et al., 1993). There is also evidence that a lack of memory specificity is a precursor to the onset of depression among nondepressed adults; Van Minnen, Wessel, Verhaak, and Smeenk (2005) reported that women's depressive symptoms following a failed in vitro fertilization treatment were negatively related to the number of specific memories they had produced on an AMT prior to the treatment. Furthermore, poor memory specificity has in fact been directly linked to difficulties in problem solving (Evans et al., 1992; Pollock & Williams, 2001; Raes et al., 2006; Williams, Barnhofer, Crane, & Duggan, 2006). Thus, depression may actually be an outcome, rather than a cause, of autobiographical memory difficulties.

Although there seems to be a growing consensus in the literature that trauma-related memory problems reflect an emotion regulation style adopted during childhood, there are some unaddressed issues that bear on the plausibility of this explanation. First, this model has focused primarily on childhood trauma, and the role of recent or current stressors in autobiographical memory problems has not been addressed. Yet it seems possible that current stressors could elicit a more transient strategic response that involves avoiding details to control affect, thus mimicking the trait-like style adopted in response to childhood traumata. In addition, childhood trauma is associated with negative outcomes and revictimiza-tion, and those more recent negative experiences may be correlated with memory functioning. The issue is further clouded by the reliance in previous research on retrospective self-reports of early trauma. Documentation of early experiences through retrospective reports is not independent of participants' current abilities or willingness to disclose trauma, making it difficult to distinguish between the impact of actual early experiences and current mental conditions or "frame of mind." Thus the memory problems that have been observed in adults with childhood abuse histories could actually reflect a more dynamic coping strategy adopted in response to current negative thoughts about childhood or recent abuse experiences. Indeed, Park, Goodyer, and Teasdale's (2004) finding that a rumination induction increased rates of overgeneral memories among depressed adolescents is consistent with the view that the current experiencing of negative thoughts might elicit a strategic avoidance of details to blunt affect.

Another limitation is that there is currently little convergent evidence that trauma-related memory patterns reflect disengagement from emotionally laden stimuli. The index of memory functioning has almost exclusively been the rate of production of specific or overgeneral memories on an AMT in which participants are asked to generate specific memories in response to cue words. Yet if the overgeneral memories typical of traumatized individuals reflect a desire to avoid potentially painful details about past events, it seems likely that this would also be evident in examinations of the disclosure of emotions in personal recollections, as well as the emotional valence of memories. Specifically, traumatized individuals who are attempting to avoid painful recollections might also avoid retrieving or reporting the emotional details of their memories and/or negatively va-lenced memories altogether. Furthermore, although the use of similar tasks and outcome measures facilitates cross-study comparisons, an additional consequence is that conclusions cannot be drawn regarding whether the memory patterns associated with childhood abuse are specific to the AMT or generalize to other assessments of autobiographical memory, such as untimed, more extensive narratives of personal memories.

We have been addressing some of these issues in our own research program by examining memory functioning in a subset of adolescents who were participating in a larger longitudinal study of family violence. Our investigations have been designed to extend previous research by examining the effects of both early and recent abuse experiences on autobiographical memory functioning. Because we documented the participants' exposure to various forms of abuse prospectively rather than retrospectively, we have been able to examine the effects of childhood abuse independently of current frame of mind or more recent stressors that may be correlated with child abuse histories. Compared to most of the previous studies, our research examines a far broader range of memory measures, including diverse characteristics of the memory narratives elicited by an AMT, performance on additional types of autobiographical memory assessments, and measures of nonautobiographical episodic memory. These multiple indicators not only provide information about the context specificity of trauma-related memory disturbances but might also shed new light on the mechanisms underlying these memory problems. In the sections that follow, we provide an overview of the longitudinal project and then describe a set of investigations of trauma-related memory patterns in the longitudinal sample.

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