Vivid memories remain long after sexual assault

(Credit: Wang Xi/Unsplash)

Women who experience sexual assault have more vivid memories than women coping with the aftermath of other traumatic, life-altering events, according to a new study.

The research finds that women who experience sexual violence, including those never diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, have more intense memories—even decades after the violence occurred—that are difficult, if not impossible to forget.

“To some extent it is not surprising that these memories relate to more feelings of depression and anxiety because these women remember what happened and think about it a lot,” says Tracey Shors, professor in the psychology department and the Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers University.

“Each time you reflect on an old memory, you make a new one in your brain because it is retrieved in the present space and time…”

“But these feelings and thoughts are usually associated with PTSD and most women in our study who experienced these vivid memories did not suffer from PTSD, which is generally associated with more intense mental and physical reactions.”

The study included 183 college-aged women between the ages of 18 and 39. Sixty-four women reported that they were victims of sexual violence while 119 did not have a history of sexual violence. Less than 10 percent were on anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication.

The women with a history of sexual violence reported stronger memories with specific details that included seeing the event clearly in their mind. They reported having a harder time forgetting the incident and believed it to be a significant part of their life story, according to the research.

Old memories, new memories

“Each time you reflect on an old memory, you make a new one in your brain because it is retrieved in the present space and time,” says Shors. “What this study shows is that this process can make it even more difficult to forget what happened.”

Previous studies show that sexual aggression and violence is one of the most likely causes of PTSD in women, a condition that is associated with decreased brain functions related to learning and memory that can be both physically and mentally debilitating and difficult to overcome.

“Women in our study who ruminated more frequently also reported more trauma-related symptoms. One could imagine how rumination could exacerbate trauma symptoms and make recovery from the trauma more difficult,” says study coauthor Emma Millon, a graduate student.

MAP training

Thirty percent of women worldwide experience some kind of physical or sexual assault in their lifetime with adolescent girls much more likely to be the victims of rape, attempted rape, or assault, according to the World Health Organization.

Recent surveys indicate that as many as one in five college students experience sexual violence during their university years.

Shors developed a new treatment to lessen these vivid memories and help women recover that is different from the traditional Prolonged Exposure Therapy, which includes recollecting the traumatic memory during interviews, story writing, and even revisiting the traumatic location.

Mental and Physical Training (MAP Training) combines 30 minutes of mental training with silent meditation followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, twice a week for six weeks. In previous studies, MAP Training diminished trauma symptoms in women who experienced violence, with those participating reporting significantly fewer trauma-related thoughts and ruminations about the past.

“This problem will not go away soon and we must keep our attention focused on prevention and justice for survivors—and their recovery,” Shors says.

The study appears in Frontiers in Psychology.

Source: Rutgers University