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The Specificity of Health-Related Autobiographical Memories in Patients With Somatic Symptom Disorder

Walentynowicz, Marta MA; Raes, Filip PhD; Van Diest, Ilse PhD; Van den Bergh, Omer PhD

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000357

Objective Patients with somatic symptom disorder (SSD) have persistent distressing somatic symptoms that are associated with excessive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Reduced autobiographical memory specificity (rAMS) is related to a range of emotional disorders and is considered a vulnerability factor for an unfavorable course of pathology. The present study investigated whether the specificity of health-related autobiographical memories is reduced in patients with SSD with medically unexplained dyspnea complaints, compared with healthy controls.

Methods Female patients with SSD (n = 30) and matched healthy controls (n = 24) completed a health-related Autobiographical Memory Test, the Beck Depression Inventory, the Ruminative Response Scale, and rumination scales concerning bodily reactions. Depressive symptoms and rumination were assessed because both variables previously showed associations with rAMS.

Results Patients with SSD recalled fewer specific (F(1,52) = 13.63, p = .001) and more categoric (F(1,52) = 7.62, p = .008) autobiographical memories to health-related cue words than healthy controls. Patients also reported higher levels of depressive symptoms and rumination (all t > 3.00, p < .01). Importantly, the differences in memory specificity were independent of depressive symptoms and trait rumination.

Conclusions The present study extends findings on rAMS to a previously unstudied sample of patients with SSD. Importantly, the presence of rAMS could not be explained by increased levels of depressive symptoms and rumination. We submit that rAMS in this group reflects how health-related episodes and associated symptoms are encoded in memory.

Supplemental digital content is available in the text.

From the Health Psychology (Walentynowicz, Van Diest, Van den Bergh) and Learning Psychology and Experimental Psychopathology (Raes), KU Leuven-University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium.

Supplemental Content

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Omer Van den Bergh, PhD, Health Psychology, University of Leuven Tiensestraat 102 – box 3726, 3000 Leuven, Belgium. E-mail:

Received for publication November 2, 2015; revision received April 6, 2016.

Copyright © 2017 by American Psychosomatic Society
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