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J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2010 Sep;41(3):316-24. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2010.03.001. Epub 2010 Mar 6.

Is it mere distraction? Peri-traumatic verbal tasks can increase analogue flashbacks but reduce voluntary memory performance.

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  • 1University of Oxford, Department of Psychiatry, Warneford Hospital, Oxford OX3 7JX, United Kingdom.


Several experiments have shown that we can reduce the frequency of analogue flashbacks with competing tasks presented during a trauma film (i.e. peri-traumatically). A "distraction" hypothesis suggests that any competing task may reduce flashbacks due to distraction and/or a load on executive control. Alternatively, a "modality" hypothesis based on clinical models of PTSD suggests that certain tasks will not protect against intrusions (Experiment 1) and could actually increase them (Experiment 2). Experiment 1 contrasted two concurrent tasks, Verbal Interference (counting backwards in threes) and Visuospatial tapping, against a no-task Control condition during trauma film viewing. The Visuospatial group had significantly fewer intrusions of the film over 1-week than the Control group. Contrary to a distraction account, the Verbal Interference group did not show this effect. Using a larger sample, Experiment 2 showed that the Verbal Interference group (counting backwards in sevens) had more intrusions (and inferior voluntary memory) than no-task Controls. We propose that this is in line with a modality hypothesis concerning trauma flashbacks. Disrupting verbal/conceptual processing during trauma could be harmful for later flashbacks.

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