Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is currently understood to arise from a past event. Indeed, people’s PTSD symptoms relate to their memory of a negative event. For instance, the more emotional, frequently rehearsed, and “central” their memory of the event is, the worse their symptoms. Yet people can also develop PTSD-like symptoms before an anticipated negative event. Where do these “PreTSD” symptoms come from? Across a series of studies, we found that when people imagine a negative event happening to them in the future, the more emotional, frequently rehearsed, and “central” that event is, the worse their “PreTSD” symptoms. In other words, the mental characteristics of events that lie in the past and of events that lie in the future are similarly associated with how troubling those events are. These findings suggest PTSD-like symptoms stem from the mental representation of a negative event—regardless of whether it has happened.
Mevagh Sanson is a Research Fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. Dr. Sanson’s research brings cognitive theory to bear on issues of applied importance, chiefly in the domain of clinical psychology. She received her PhD in 2018; her thesis systematically examined the effects of “trigger warnings,” revealing these controversial content warnings have no meaningful effect on people’s distress. More recently, Dr. Sanson has turned her attention to the relationship between autobiographical memory and posttraumatic stress disorder. Her work has been funded by the NZ Federation of Graduate Women and Fulbright NZ.