Stressful life memories relate to ruminative thoughts in women with sexual violence history, irrespective of PTSD

Emma M. Millon, Han Yan M. Chang, Tracey J. Shors

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


More than one in every four women in the world experience sexual violence (SV) in their lifetime, most often as teenagers and young adults. These traumatic experiences leave memories in the brain, which are difficult if not impossible to forget. We asked whether women with SV history experience stronger memories of their most stressful life event than women without SV history and if so, whether strength relates to ruminative and trauma-related thoughts. Using the Autobiographical Memory Questionnaire (AMQ), women with SV history (n = 64) reported this memory as especially strong (p < 0.001), remembering more sensory and contextual details, compared to women without SV history (n = 119). They further considered the event a significant part of their personal life story. The strength of the memory was highly correlated with posttraumatic cognitions and ruminative thoughts, as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety (p's < 0.001, n = 183). A third (33%) of the women with SV history were diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but PTSD alone did not account for the increase in memory strength (p's < 0.001). These data suggest that the experience of SV increases the strength of stressful autobiographical memories, which are then reexperienced in everyday life during posttraumatic and ruminative thoughts. We propose that the repeated rehearsal of vivid stressful life memories generates more trauma memories in the brain, making the experience of SV even more difficult to forget.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number311
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
Issue numberSEP
StatePublished - Sep 5 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


  • Depression
  • Fear
  • Memory
  • PTSD
  • Rumination
  • Sexual violence
  • Stress
  • Trauma


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