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Behav Res Ther. 2002 Sep;40(9):995-1002.

The nature of intrusive memories after trauma: the warning signal hypothesis.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, UK.


Individuals who had experienced a range of different traumas were asked to describe the quality and content of their intrusive memories. Visual intrusions were the most common, and thoughts were uncommon. Intrusion quality varied little with type of trauma. Intrusive memories commonly consisted of stimuli that were present immediately before the traumatic event happened or shortly before the moments that had the largest emotional impact (i.e., when the meaning of the event became more traumatic). It is suggested that intrusive memories are about stimuli that through temporal association with the trauma acquired the status of warning signals, i.e., stimuli that if encountered again would indicate impending danger. This explains why intrusive memories are accompanied by a sense of serious current threat. The warning signal hypothesis may be useful in guiding therapists in identifying the moments with the largest emotional impact that will need reprocessing in treatment, and in educating patients about the nature of reexperiencing symptoms.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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