According to Ingrid Waichler, LCSW, and Maria Simbra, MD, at Choosing Therapy, a person’s brain can be negatively impacted by trauma and stress, often resulting in impaired memory. This can occur because of physical or emotional trauma, and memory loss can be the brain’s way of coping with the experience. However, regaining lost memories resulting from trauma is possible through therapy and other treatment.
Casa Palmera, a mental health treatment program located in Del Mar, CA, stated that memory loss is a frustrating and sometimes scary experience, especially if the memory loss is caused by a traumatic event. Research shows a definite relationship between emotional, psychological, or physical trauma occurrences and memory. Some of this memory loss may be a temporary way to help you cope with the trauma, and some of it may be permanent due to a severe brain injury or disturbing psychological trauma. Knowing how trauma can affect your memory can guide you in choosing an appropriate treatment to help you cope with trauma and heal your memory problems.
How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?
Trauma can affect the brain in several ways, both in terms of functionality and structure. Suppressed memories are often created through state-dependent learning, or the brain’s act of creating memories during a particular emotional or physical state. After a traumatic or stressful experience, these memories essentially become blocked from consciousness until a person revisits the traumatic event. In short, memory loss can be a coping mechanism utilized by the brain to prevent one from remembering and reliving a traumatic event.
Below are the three areas of the brain that are associated with memory and brain functions:
- Hypothalamus: Regulates hunger and thirst, while also playing a role in various aspects of memory and emotion
- Amygdala: Associated with the brain’s reward system, stress management, “fight or flight” response, and some memory/emotion regulation
- Hippocampus: Supports memory, learning, navigation, and perception of space
PTSD & Dissociative Amnesia: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who experience or witness a traumatic event. Those diagnosed with PTSD often experience dissociative memory loss or amnesia, a condition that results in loss of memory, usually related to their trauma. Dissociative memory is diagnosed when there is no evidence of traumatic brain injury or loss of cognitive function and memory due to dementia. In relation to PTSD, dissociative amnesia has been linked to instances of severe stress such as experiencing a car accident, witnessing war, abuse, or living through a natural/man-made disaster.
Physical Trauma & Memory Loss
Physical trauma or medical conditions–such as a stroke–can directly impact memory function, especially if the three areas of the brain that control these functions are damaged. As a result of a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a person may experience a decline in short-term memory, difficulties remembering to do things, or a loss of memory regarding the incident resulting in the injury.
Emotional or Psychological Trauma & Memory Loss
Psychological or emotional trauma can result in memory loss. A person’s brain may suppress memories as a protective mechanism to prevent the retrieval of painful emotions associated with a traumatic event. Memory loss can occur as a byproduct of repeated situations such as child abuse or domestic violence. Emotional memory loss is a means of survival to shield from the psychological fallout of trauma.
Repeated trauma scenarios can lead to the development of Complex PTSD, sometimes resulting in emotional dysregulation. Moreover, repressed memories can also occur within these dynamics. Symptoms include flashbacks, blurring of memories, dissociation from reality, and memory loss or alteration.
Childhood Trauma & Memory Loss
Experts at the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies have carefully researched the impacts of childhood trauma on memory loss. Their conclusions state that sometimes, people will forget a traumatic event occurs, despite knowing that it happened. Occasionally, a person may be able to suddenly recall these traumatic or abusive events, also known as recovered memories.
Alternatively, a person may have false memories of a situation or inaccurate memories that can be influenced by others or created to fill in gaps. Unfortunately, because a person may genuinely believe that these memories are accurate, it can be challenging to differentiate them from reality.
Many wonder why and how childhood traumas and memories can reappear in adulthood. Some evidence suggests that certain activities can stimulate recall of the traumatic event, including:
- Reading stories similar to their past trauma
- Watching tv shows or movies with a similar incident
- Speaking with family or loved ones about it
- Experiencing a similar event to that of their past trauma
How to Improve Trauma-Induced Memory Loss
There is no specific timeline for the recovery of one’s memory. It is a difficult process, as painful memories will begin to emerge and solidify. Learning how to cope with them is the best way to initiate healing.
Below are several healthy coping mechanisms that can facilitate healing and recovery:
Sleep well: Sleep has been proven to provide many benefits, both mentally and physically. However, many who have experienced trauma in the past may face difficulties sleeping. To promote healthy bedtime habits, try to maintain a regular sleep schedule and keep your phone outside of the bedroom.
Employ Mindfulness Techniques: Mindfulness techniques are used to ensure that you remain totally in the present. This helps minimize thoughts about past trauma and fears about the future. Examples of mindfulness include deep breathing exercises and meditation, which slows the mind and relaxes the body.
Use Memory-Boosting Games and Apps
Experts agree that using brain-boosting games and applications can help improve memory. However, not all games are created equal. Helpful ones to consider include word puzzles, memory games, and visual recognition skill boosters.
When to Get Help for PTSD & Memory Loss
Be on the lookout for warning signs that traumatic thoughts and memories are impeding your ability to function at home, work, and within relationships. If you cannot control these negative emotions, consider reaching out for psychological support.
Additional psychotherapy may be necessary if these symptoms arise or worsen:
- Emotional lability
- Intrusive thoughts and frightening memories
- Inability to concentrate or focus
- Isolation from significant relationships
- Alcohol or drug use
- Inability to sleep
- Feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, or fear
Therapy Options for PTSD and Memory Loss
The only way to heal from past trauma is to recognize what has happened and how it affects your life in destructive ways. This is a painful and challenging process, so having a trained therapist who specializes in trauma is very helpful.
Therapies that are effective in treating patients with memory loss and trauma include the following:
- Trauma-Focused Therapy (TFT): The goal of trauma-focused therapy is to teach someone how to manage the negative feelings associated with past trauma in healthy and effective ways. Working with a therapist provides a safe place to address these emotions and their origins, as well as take steps to overcome them.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR was developed in 1987 by Psychologist Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., specifically for treating people with PTSD. It utilizes a unique approach to change the way a person’s memory is stored in their brain. Typically, it lasts between six and 12 sessions.
- Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): CPT is designed to help trauma patients, especially those diagnosed with PTSD, alter the destructive thoughts associated with their trauma. It is also a short-term therapy, usually lasting about 12 sessions. In this treatment, people learn how to challenge the beliefs they’ve formed regarding their trauma, and create healthier conceptualizations of it in order to heal.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Lasting between 12-20 sessions, CBT is a short term, goal oriented therapy that focuses on altering one’s unhealthy thoughts and feelings connected to trauma.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): Dialectical means “the opposite.” In DBT, clients are taught solving skills to manage intense and unhealthy emotions with great intensity. This treatment can be done individually or in a group.
How to Find a Therapist
Finding the right therapist who is also familiar with trauma treatment is especially important for those coping with past experiences. It can be difficult to understand and move on from violent episodes or severe emotionally traumatic events. The additional factor of memory loss can make them more challenging to overcome. If you have a network of family or friends you can trust, you can reach out to them for a referral. Additionally, your doctor, local mental health center, and online directories are other good resources for information.
Memory loss can be both frightening and confusing. It is important to recognize that, following especially traumatic situations, memory loss can be a self-defense or survival technique used to protect you from painful situations and their psychological effects. When the emotional toll from trauma begins to negatively impact your life and relationships, it is time to consider psychotherapeutic support. Treatment can help you face your memories in a safe place and offer you new skills to regain control. Pursuing new insights can help you begin healing, so you can move forward.