Cognitive Load Undermines Thought Suppression in Acute Stress Disorder

Reginald Nixon, Julie Rackebrandt

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    9 Citations (Scopus)


    Thought suppression studies demonstrate that attempts to suppress can be undermined by cognitive load. We report the first instance in which this has been tested experimentally in a sample of recently traumatized individuals. Individuals with and without acute stress disorder (ASD) were recruited following recent trauma and randomized to load or no load conditions (N = 56). They monitored intrusive memories during baseline, suppression, and think anything phases. The impact of suppression and load on self-reported intrusions, attention bias (dot-probe), and memory priming (word-stem task) was assessed. The ASD load group were less able to suppress memories (d = 0.32, CI95 [-0.15, 0.83], p = .088) than the ASD no load group (d = 0.63, CI95 [0.08, 1.24], p < .001). In the think anything phase, the ASD load group reported more intrusions than the ASD no load or non-ASD groups (with and without load). No consistent findings were observed in relation to attentional bias. ASD load individuals exhibited stronger priming responses for motor vehicle accident and assault words than all other groups (ds between 0.35-0.73). Working memory did not moderate any outcomes of interest. The findings indicate that cognitive load interferes with suppression and may enhance access to trauma memories and associated material. The study extends previous research by demonstrating these effects for the first time in a clinical sample of recent survivors of trauma.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)388-403
    Number of pages16
    JournalBehavior Therapy
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2016


    • Attention bias variability
    • Intrusions
    • Trauma


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