Emotion granularity and memory for trauma in PTSD

Research on how emotions become dysregulated has recently moved towards examining emotional experience as complex and dynamic interactions between emotions and their interaction over time rather than as isolated and static phenomena (Krone et al., 2018). This approach is beginning to enrich clinical understanding of the role of emotion dysregulation in mental disorders. For example, measures of emotion complexity such as high variability in the intensity of emotions over time, a higher tendency for emotions to carry over from moment to moment (emotion inertia) and higher interrelations between different emotions cross-sectionally and temporally have been linked to poorer emotion regulation, inflexibility in adapting to negative emotions, rumination and higher severity of emotional disorders such as major depression (Krone et al., 2018; Pe & Kuppens, 2015).

One feature of emotion complexity, emotional granularity, consistently shows associations with emotion dysregulation and avoidant coping in mental disorders such as Eating Disorders, Borderline Personality Disorder and Substance Use Disorder as well with emotion regulation and coping in typical and atypical populations (Smidt & Suvak, 2015). Emotion granularity (EG), also known as emotion differentiation, reflects the ability to be aware of and distinguish between emotional states and represent these distinctions to one’s self and others. EG is indexed by the strength of the associations between categorically different but like-valanced experienced emotions. It is estimated from repeated within-person momentary self-reports of emotions across contexts and occasions (Smidt & Suvak, 2015) or by individual differences in global self-reports (Kang & Shaver, 2004). High degrees of associations between various emotions across contexts and occasions reflect low EG.

Project Summary

EG may be relevant to maladaptive adjustment following trauma which is marked by arousal dysregulation and persistent, disturbing intrusive memories (IMs). While there is good evidence that in PTSD dysregulated affective arousal impacts negatively on the memory system which provides temporal context to the narrative event memory (O’Kearney & Parry, 2014), dysregulated affect may also interact with systems providing emotional salience to the memories of the trauma experience. EG offers ways to examine this interaction consistent with the complexity of emotion experience after a trauma.

IMs are the hallmark of PTSD and are accompanied by a lack of the usual degree of sense of agency and predominate sensory and perceptual elements. They persist because of avoidance of aversive memory-associated arousal. Avoidance is played out behaviourally in reduced engagement with situational reminders and, cognitively, in alteration to the quality of the narrative recall of the trauma such as fragmented temporal organisation and reduced emotional content. While much is known about the structural aspects of trauma remembering associated with intrusiveness, there is little work on the nature of the emotional content of trauma memories and it connection to intrusiveness.

The aims of this study are to investigate how levels of affective arousal and problems in incorporating emotional information into event remembering (EG) interrelate in maintaining memory intrusiveness and poor adjustment following trauma. Specifically, it will: examine the association between emotion granularity (EG) in trauma memories and psychological adjustment; test whether EG moderates the association between affective arousal and memory intrusiveness and emotional adjustment; and develop measures of the features of emotion experience as a dynamic, complex system which are relevant to better understanding emotion dysregulation following trauma.

The study will address these aims through a re-examination of data from 143 trauma-exposed participants with and without PTSD. These data include trauma and non-trauma event-memory narratives. It will assess EG in two ways from these narratives. First, the study will develop measures based on the co-occurrences of reports of particular emotion categories (e.g., negative- fear; sadness; anger; disgust; positive – relief; happy) to estimate group (PTSD; non-PTSD) networks of co-occurring like-valanced emotions (negative; positive). Network characteristics such as network density and node centrality can be used to assess the degree of granularity between like-valanced emotions expressions. Second, we will use ratings of emotion differentiation for each emotion expression based on the degree to which the expression is prototypical for the emotion category (sad, scared – low differentiation) or represents a more complex, mixed emotion (disappointed, furious – high differentiation).

Research direction

This project will continue my work on the narrative representation of trauma events in relation to maladjustment following trauma and the mechanisms for the development and maintenance of IMs (O’Kearney & Parry, 2014; Parry & O’Kearney 2014; O’Kearney et al., 2011). It also will contribute to original directions for my work in the development of emotion competencies and language (Salmon et al., 2013; Salmon, O’Kearney et al., 2016) by increasing my knowledge of emotion dynamics and complexity both from a methodological and conceptual framework. This will help position me as leading researcher internationally in regard to emotion dynamics in PTSD and trauma, and also in understanding the development of individual differences in emotion dynamics and its connection to emotion dysregulation.

Outputs and significance

I expect high quality outputs given the unique nature and size of the sample of narratives, clinical relevance of the topic, previous publications and the use of cutting-edge measures of features of emotion complexity. The project will also contribute preliminary data to a NHMRC Ideas grant looking at the emotion dynamics in trauma memory over occasions to be submitted in May 2019. The work connects to the work of emotion and memory researchers in RSP (Dawel; Goodhew; Newman) and clinical researchers (Pasalich; Rieger) opening opportunities for collaboration.


Kang & Shaver, (2004). Individual differences in emotion complexity. Journal of Personality, 72, 687-726.

Krone et al., (2018). A multivariate statistical model of emotion dynamics. Emotion, 18, 739-754

O’Kearney, & Parry (2014) Comparative physiological reactivity during script-driven recall in major depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 123(3), 19-28.

O’Kearney et al. (2011). Integration and organisation of trauma memories and post traumatic symptoms. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 24 (6), 716-725

Parry. & O’Kearney (2014). A comparison of the quality of intrusive memories in PTSD and depression. Memory, 22, 408-425.

Pe et al., (2015). Emotion-network density in major depression. Clinical Psychological Science, 3, 291-300.

Salmon & O’Kearney (2013). Emotional memory, well-being, and psychopathology. In P. J. Bauer and R. Fivush, Editors, Handbook on the Development of Children’s Memory,V3, New York.

Salmon, O’Kearney et al. (2016). The role of language skill in child psychopathology: Implications for intervention in the early years. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review.

Smidt & Suvak, (2015). A brief, but nuanced, review of emotion granularity and emotion differentiation Research. Current opinions in Psychology, 3, 48-51.

Contact us

This project ‘Emotion granularity and memory for trauma in PTSD’ is funded by the ANU Research School of Psychology

The Chief Investigator on this project is Professor Richard O’Kearney, a professor of psychology at the Research School of Psychology ANU.  Learn more about Richard O’Kearney.


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