Memory is not just static snapshots or video on a harddrive, but an active process. As such, it is possible to construct false memories (Brainerd & Reyna, 2005). Some of these false memories can be very traumatic (Loftus, 1996).

There is a lot of research of false memories and PTSD, but most of it is concerned around the accidental implantation of false memories during therapy (for example, see discussion in Hyman et al., 1995), or asking if PTSD-patients are more prone to forming false memories (for example, Jelinek et al., 2009).

Are there any case studies of patients who did not initially have PTSD (and were neuro-typical or 'healthy' in other regards, too) nor experienced any events usually associated with PTSD, but developed PTSD based on a false memory?


Brainerd, C.J., & Reyna, V.F. (2005). The science of false memory. Oxford University Press.

Hyman, I. E., Husband, T. H., & Billings, F. J. (1995). False memories of childhood experiences. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9(3), 181-197.

Jelinek, L., Hottenrott, B., Randjbar, S., Peters, M. J., & Moritz, S. (2009). Visual false memories in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 40(2): 374-383.

Loftus, E. (1996). The myth of repressed memory: False memories and allegations of sexual abuse. Macmillan.

  • $\begingroup$ I love this question and think it has a lot of informational potential, but I am having a hard time seeing how it can have an answer besides an elaborate version of "this cannot be answered directly for methodological and ethical reasons, but indirect evidence (e.g., trauma duration matters, suggesting memory alone is not sufficient) suggests it is unlikely." Would that be a satisfying answer? +1, in any event. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ @ChristianHummeluhr I don't need experimental manipulations, I am happy with case studies. I don't see why such case studies cannot exist in principle: some people have long-term psychotherapists that they attend regardless of previous trauma (i.e. as a preventative measure; this is advised for psychiatry residents at our school, for instance), so such people could be certified as "typical" before and then later develop PTSD which after investigation turns out to be based around an event that never happened. The other direction has case-studies from people with an absent fear response. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13, 2015 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ Secondary PTSD, where a counsellor who deals with people who have undergone traumatic and life threatening events - develops PTSD themselves, might suggest that it is possible. Although not false memories, the counsellor has not experienced the trauma events themselves and has developed the PTSD from repeated exposure and emotionally close engagement with these events. $\endgroup$
    – memebrain
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know of such a case and doubt it exists in healthy individual. As far as I know, there are also no credible studies showing that people with PTSD have clear memory dysfunction, and the study you cited did not find them either. Are you assuming that PTSD develops from having access to memories of trauma, which can then be created in someone, such as by brainwashing them for instance? $\endgroup$
    – Jlente
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 8:57

3 Answers 3


An answer I provided before on the possibility of recalling forgotten memories briefly talks about False Memory Syndrome and PTSD. As stated in the answer,

Memory is not fixed as it is very plastic

and as pointed out in the article you referenced (Hyman, et al., 1995), people are susceptible to creating false memories.

To answer your question on whether non-sufferers of PTSD can develop PTSD from false memories, MyPTSD.com states that false memories can be traumatic and Psychology Today mentions an article (Southwick, et al., 1997) which reported that false memories increased PTSD in war veterans; however, I cannot find any definitive study on non-PTSD sufferers developing PTSD from false memories. I would say that this is for the reasons @ChristianHummeluhr pointed out in his comment

...for methodological and ethical reasons...

For the reason that false memories can be traumatic and has increased symptoms in PTSD sufferers, I would say that it is highly plausible that false memories could lead to PTSD.

As @memebrain pointed out in his answer — although not correctly termed — there are are various forms of trauma that counsellors, psychotherapists, etc. can suffer from as a result of their work, and the US National Centre for PTSD (part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) has an article about it.

The secondary PTSD mentioned by @memebrain is actually Secondary Traumatic Stress which

produces symptoms similar to PTSD.

We as counsellors and psychotherapists are trained to be careful not to create false memories in their clients and

Research Article References

Hyman, I. E., Husband, T. H., & Billings, F. J. (1995). False memories of childhood experiences In: Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9(3), pp 181-197.
DOI: 10.1002/acp.2350090302
Free PDF available at ResearchGate

Southwick, S. M., Morgan III, C. A., Nicolaou, A. L., Charney, D. S. (1997). Consistency of Memory for Combat-Related Traumatic Events in Veterans of Operation Desert Storm In: The American Journal of Psychiatry 154(2) pp. 173-177.
DOI: 10.1176/ajp.154.2.173


NPR had a report on the abuse and dangers of suggestive hypnosis by psychologists trying to find abuse in their patient's past. Suggesting abuse to their patience in a hypersensitive and vulnerable state inadvertently ended up "suggesting" events that fostered creating false memories into their patients. The piece on the radio also discussed the consequences of how these false memories had destroyed familial relationships: The subjects who had undergone suggestive hypnosis now swore abuses had occurred and could "never forgive" (as was quoted by the journalist) their parents or family members who had been suggested in their state of hypnosis as a potential perpetrator of a suggested crime. According to the piece, what really got the professional world's attention to examine the practice as abusive by psychologists, dealt with a psychologist suggesting ritual sacrifice and murders that never occurred. The super sensitive state of suggestion in hypnosis allowed the psychologists to create false memories. The damages in those cases far outweighed the benefits, and apparently that case in Philadelphia changed the practice of how psychology dealt with the practice of hypnosis.

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    $\begingroup$ Would be great if you could find that report and add it. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ While I'm not entirely sure this answers the question (the people in therapy already had problems, it complicates the jump to PTSD that the question is aimed at), I can add a secondary reference: this has been described in Daniel Schacter's 'Seven Sins of Memory'. $\endgroup$
    – Ana
    Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 8:51

I am gay. I have been diagnosed with PTSD twice, once in 1999 and again in 2011. The PTSD relates to 2 aspects of something that happened to me in 1972. In 1972 I saw my boyfriend die in a road accident. I was depressed for a long time before a mental breakdown in 1998 led to me being treated for PTSD as a result of this death. I received a 40 sessions of therapy to help me come to terms with my boyfriends death.

All was relatively well until I had another breakdown in 2010. It was during psychotherapy that I broke through a blockage in my mind and I realised that I did not in fact see my boyfriend die, it was a false memory.

This false memory/image manifested itself into my brain as a result of receiving (at age 18) very painful electric shock therapy designed to stop me loving my boyfriend. My brain decided the only way to stop this barbaric treatment was to invent his death. The therapy then stopped. There are reasons that I never saw my friend again, even though he didn't die until 1983.

The people who carried out my torture were more interested in stopping me being gay than they were in my future life.

One of my present therapists (I am receiving EMDR) has asked me if she can use me as a case study and I said yes, so maybe when my case is presented it will confirm that PTSD can be based on a false memory.

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    $\begingroup$ This is interesting. Do you know of other documented cases of people in your position? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ No I do not know of any other cases. I wish that I could find other cases just to compare with my own case. I was hoping I could find some answers on this website. $\endgroup$
    – jerryg
    Commented Jun 4, 2016 at 17:42

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