Is It PTSD? Memory Loss And Its Role In Trauma

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 12/30/2020

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a complicated disorder. Having PTSD can feel like walking through a maze, with each new curve bringing a new symptom that needs to be addressed. One of the more unusual and most often overlooked symptoms of PTSD is memory loss, both involving the traumatic event itself and general function and information retention. Memory loss may seem to be a fanciful or unrealistic invention. Still, it is a regular symptom of many traumatic disorders and experiences and can have serious and severe consequences.

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What Is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder separated from other anxiety disorders for its instigator: trauma. In contrast, anxiety disorders can have many different catalysts and a host of different risk factors, PTSD is uniquely tied to trauma.  While it may seem counterintuitive, PTSD is essentially the human body and mind’s response to an event that is too overwhelming or damaging to take in and process. Some of these catalysts are seen by the world as a whole as unilaterally traumatic, such as being assaulted, or witnessing the horrors of war. In contrast, some of these catalysts may be seen as innocuous or simple, such as the loss of a friend or involvement in a car accident.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has had numerous names since it was first recognized in war veterans. Once identified as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue,” PTSD was initially thought to be a condition unique to people who have seen large volumes of death or violence, then gradually extended to include people who had survived through or witnessed natural disasters and similar large-scale events. As the condition became increasingly well-known and thoroughly studied, however, its scope continued to expand, and today, PTSD is known for having causes as varied and diverse as can be imagined, without a heavy focus on age, background, or even the intensity of the trauma that has been experienced.

Typical PTSD Symptoms

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder known for four primary characteristics. These characteristics include avoidance, recurring or intrusive thoughts, mood or behavior changes, and physical behavior changes or responses. Unlike many other disorders, each of these four symptoms must be present to qualify for a PTSD diagnosis, in addition to having experienced a traumatic event or series of traumatic events.

The four PTSD symptoms have many different symptoms identified beneath their umbrella, each of them unique in their ties and approach. Avoidance, for instance, will look different for everyone. For some, avoidance means avoiding all thoughts or memories of the event in particular and essentially shutting off emotional responses and thought processes that could lead back to the source of the trauma. For others, avoidance has a literal, physical manifestation, involving the avoidance of any place or situation that could relate to the traumatic event. If a car accident were the source of PTSD, someone might avoid the intersection where the accident took place. If the trauma in question stemmed from an abusive relationship, close relationships might be bypassed.

Recurring and intrusive thoughts follow a pattern similar to avoidance: they will look different for each unique case of PTSD. Recurring and intrusive thoughts might directly tie back to the source of trauma, as might be the case when someone who was mugged cannot stop picturing impending muggings or could involve other thoughts, like thoughts of inflicting violence or screaming at loved ones at the slightest provocation. These thoughts are often sources of disturbance and may be followed by feelings of anger, shame, or fear.

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Mood and behavior changes often include emotional outbursts and withdrawal—sometimes a combination of the two, in crests and waves, and sometimes with a much heavier focus on one type of emotional and mood change than the other. For instance, some people might find themselves constantly on edge and feel as they are perpetually two seconds away from screaming at the first person to cross their path. Some will constantly feel on the verge of weeping and may feel everything is suddenly too overwhelming to handle. Still, others will try to forego emotions altogether and will adopt a steely, unaffected demeanor.

Physical symptoms of PTSD often involve appetite changes, sleep changes, and a host of seemingly unrelated and unexplainable physical health issues, including the onset of gastrointestinal upset, constant aches and pains, and chronic exhaustion. Changes to appetite and sleep can also lead to weight changes, and people with PTSD might find themselves gaining or losing a large amount of weight in a short time. If any of the above symptoms appear to apply to you, an online PTSD quiz can help clarify the likelihood of PTSD.

Memory Loss: Is It Real?

While memory loss might seem more like a convenient plot point in a suspense film or police procedural, it is a legitimate coping mechanism that may be enacted by the brain. Memory loss can indicate an actual physical ailment—and this is the more common reason for memory loss—but it can also indicate a mental health issue, such as ongoing trauma or experiencing a single traumatic event. Although memory loss has earned a dubious reputation as little more than a convenient plot point for countless narratives, memory loss is a very real (and very difficult) symptom of numerous health issues, including both mental and physical health concerns.

Trauma And Memory Loss: The Effects Of PTSD

The memory loss involved in PTSD is not quite the same as the short-term memory loss and other types of amnesia common to media portrayals of memory loss. Instead, it looks far more like unusually fragmented and splintered memories of the traumatic event. These splinters and fragments are thought to be tied to the dissociation so common to trauma responses. Dissociation is a coping mechanism that the brain may engage in dealing with trauma and essentially creates a distance between yourself and the traumatic event. In dissociation, people often feel that they are floating above themselves or watching a situation unfold without actually being in their bodies or being involved. While it is a common involuntary coping mechanism used to deal with trauma, this action can impair an individual’s ability to consistently and accurately access the memories of the traumatic event or events.

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Memory loss and PTSD are also thought to be linked to cognitive impairment. Being unable to remember the events before, after, or during traumatic events is typically thought of as the primary form of memory loss present in PTSD, but ongoing memory loss is also common. People with PTSD have reported experiencing difficulty concentrating and remembering information and events wholly unrelated to the traumatic event itself. They may struggle in school and at work as a result. Memory loss can be minor and involve struggling to retain new information. It can present a significant obstacle for people trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in work and school performances. It can even lead to a drop in grades or work loss.

Other Sources Of Memory Loss

PTSD is not the only source of memory loss. Head trauma, illness, stroke, and other head injuries can also damage memory processes in human beings, and all of these conditions could be at the root of memory loss. Lack of adequate nutrition, anxiety and depressive disorders, and medications, too, can cause ongoing memory loss and difficulty concentrating. Evaluating the possible cause of memory loss can help determine whether additional treatments need to be included in your PTSD treatment plan.

In some cases, memory loss and physical trauma can coincide with memory loss and PTSD-related trauma. While PTSD may not always involve physical violence (assault, an accident, or a wartime situation), physical injury can be involved, triggering memory loss from two different angles—two different angles with completely different types of therapy. Treating multiple angles of memory loss can be difficult, but PTSD is known for frequently having multiple co-morbidities, and multiple treatment modalities are fairly common in PTSD treatment.

The mechanism of memory loss in PTSD is somewhat known. Still, memory loss can also indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, even in people who have not crossed the threshold of “elderly.” The presence of memory loss could indicate PTSD. Still, it could also indicate Alzheimer’s Disorder, particularly if memory loss is gradual or is initially focused on small things, such as where a purse or keys are located or where items in the home belong. There have also been lines drawn between PTSD and Alzheimer’s, further convoluting the link between PTSD and memory loss and Alzheimer’s and memory loss.

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Is It PTSD? PTSD And Memory Loss

While it may not top the list of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms, memory loss is a common symptom of PTSD. While it may seem strange to experience memory loss as a consequence of trauma, the loss of memory is one of the brain’s most effective coping mechanisms, designed to smooth the process of experiencing trauma and subsequently dealing with it. Memory loss typically focuses on the event or situation itself. Still, it can extend past the event and affect other areas of cognition and memory, including learning new skills or retaining new information. Treating the symptoms of PTSD can help mitigate memory loss and difficulty concentrating and pave the path toward a healthy, bright future.