Horowitz’s Information Processing Theory, Flashbacks And Nightmares

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Information processing theory

According to the psychological researcher Horowitz, some symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be understood more clearly with reference to what he termed Information Processing Theory.

What Is Information Processing Theory And How Does It Relate To Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Horowitz suggests that if we undergo a very traumatic experience, such as significant and chronic childhood trauma, we develop a powerful unconscious drive to ‘make sense of it’, ‘work through it’ and mentally process it.

In relation to this, Horowitz proposes that we all have an internal mental model of how the world works (mental models are sometimes referred to by psychologists as schemas).

However, when we undergo severe trauma, the experience does not ‘fit’ this internal mental model or schema. This causes us stress and we are unconsciously driven to reconstruct our mental model/schema so that the traumatic experience CAN be fitted into it (i.e. mentally integrated).

This process is complex and takes time, especially if the traumatic experience was severe and long – lasting.

Horowitz states that this processing of the traumatic event involves repeatedly, mentally replaying it; this can lead to :

  • intrusive memories
  • nightmares
  • flashbacks

But :

The intensity and frequency of these intrusive memories, nightmares and flashbacks can attain a critical point at which they are so distressing, mentally overwhelming and emotionally exhausting that, to avoid them, we become psychologically numb.

Horowitz suggests that the processing of the traumatic experience can involve vascillating between these two states until a final state of mental equilibrium is reached at which point the trauma has been successfully processed.

Problems arise, of course, if we become ‘stuck’ in the ‘vascillation phase’ and, in such a situation, professional therapy may be considered. Research suggests that two effective therapies are dialectical behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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About David Hosier MSc

Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.

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