Automatic Versus Effortful Influences in the Processing of Traumatic Material in Acute Stress Disorder

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The defining feature of the acute stress disorder (ASD) diagnosis is the emphasis on dissociative symptoms. The dissociation model posits that dissociative reactions are automatically activated in response to traumatic exposure, suggesting that the cognitive processing of individuals with ASD is characterized by automatic processes. In the present study, Jacoby’s (1991) process-dissociation model was applied to investigate the extent to which both automatic and effortful processing are involved in the processing of traumatic material in ASD. We employed a computer-based version of this paradigm to compare trauma-exposed participants with (n = 13) and without (n = 13) ASD. The results indicated no evidence for a greater contribution of automatic influences to the processing of trauma-related information in the ASD group. Overall participants demonstrated a baseline bias towards the completion of trauma-related word stems, irrespective of group status. Severity of psychopathology was negatively correlated with estimates of the contribution of both automatic and strategic processing of positive material. The findings suggest that ASD participants are not characterized by distinctive automatic information processing styles. Results are discussed in terms of the applicability of the process dissociation paradigm with traumatized populations.

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