Exploring intrusions without awareness: A preliminary study of the characteristics and influences of meta-awareness failures

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Background and Objectives: Research shows that people can lack meta-awareness (i.e., being explicitly aware) of their trauma-related thoughts, which impacts our understanding of re-experiencing symptoms, a key symptom type in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), assessed through self-report. This preliminarily study explored differences between (meta-)aware and unaware intrusion characteristics to understand why some intrusions are not immediately apparent to individuals. 

Methods: Trauma-exposed participants (N = 78) were recruited from online crowd-sourcing platforms to complete an online meta-awareness task. During a reading task, participants were intermittently probed to index the occurrence of unreported (i.e., unaware) trauma-related intrusions. Once participants indicated trauma-related intrusions were present, they then completed a questionnaire that indexed intrusion characteristics. 

Results: Although unaware intrusions did occur in a subset of the sample, there were no fundamental differences between aware and unaware intrusions in terms of modality of experience (imagery vs. non-imagery), meaningfulness, accessibility, or other characteristics (e.g., vividness). 

Limitations: There was potential for lower participant engagement and attention due to the online delivery of the meta-awareness task, which may have minimized meta-awareness failure. Future research could consider using a continuous measure to index levels of meta-awareness. In addition, recruiting clinical samples (e.g., individuals with PTSD) who typically experience multiple daily intrusions would allow generalizability of the current findings to be tested.

Conclusions: Our findings from this preliminary study suggest that unaware and aware intrusions show more commonality than not in their characteristics, with further research required to improve our understanding of the mechanisms leading to meta-awareness or lack of in PTSD.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101889
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023


  • Intrusions
  • Meta-awareness
  • Trauma
  • Trauma-related memories
  • Trauma-related thoughts


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