Can Memory Loss Be Caused by Trauma? Here's What You Need to KnowOct 11, 2022
Memory loss from trauma can be an unexpected and alarming experience.
Occasionally, memory loss from trauma can be your brain's temporary response to help you cope with the experience. However, research also demonstrates that emotional trauma can have a short term and long-term effects on your brain.
In this article, we will discuss:
- What is emotional trauma?
- Symptoms of emotional trauma
- Memory loss from trauma
- Can you get your memory back after emotional trauma?
What is emotional trauma?
Emotional trauma occurs when an extraordinarily stressful event shatters your sense of security and makes you feel helpless. These events can leave you struggling with upsetting memories and persistent anxiety that leave you feeling disconnected, stressed and emotional.
Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to your safety or your sense of wellbeing, even if the situation does not involve physical harm. It's not the actual event that determines if your experience is traumatic but rather your emotional response to the circumstances. The more frightened, helpless or stressed you feel, the more likely the event is traumatic to you.
Causes of emotional trauma
Emotional trauma can be caused by a one-time event such as:
- a motor vehicle accident
- an unexpected injury or life-threatening diagnosis
- a violent attack or mass shooting
- the sudden death of a loved one
Emotional trauma can also occur from chronic stressful events such as:
- bullying, verbal, physical or emotional abuse domestic violence
- having or caring for someone with chronic or progressive illness
- feelings of betrayal from a breakup or a divorce
Even chronic exposure to sad, stressful or horrific events in the news and media can become a source of traumatic stress, as it can trigger dysregulation in your system, making it more challenging to stay focused and present.
Symptoms of emotional trauma
There is a wide range of physical, emotional and cognitive symptoms you may experience from emotional trauma.
Emotional symptoms from trauma:
- Guilt or shame
- Flashbacks or vivid reminders of the event
Physical symptoms from trauma:
- Insomnia or fatigue
- Aches and pains
- Muscle tension
- GI disturbances
Cognitive symptoms from trauma:
- Poor focus or attention, easily distracted
- Short term memory loss from trauma
- Mental overwhelm or fatigue
- Feelings of your mind racing
- Difficulty word finding
These symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. You may experience some, all or none of the above.
If you are experiencing these symptoms of emotional trauma, it be quite challenging to complete your everyday tasks, express yourself, share your thoughts and emotions and remain present in your work, relationships or daily tasks.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health condition that can occur after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event.
PTSD is characterized by symptoms of:
- intrusive thoughts about an incident
- recurrent anxiety and distress
- sleep disturbances or nightmares
- changes in memory and concentration
Navigating memory loss from trauma
Memory loss from trauma can be an unexpected and unpleasant symptom. At times, your memory loss can fade away as you process and heal from a traumatic event. However, emotional trauma from chronically stressful events can lead to persistent short term memory loss.
Memory loss from trauma may feel like:
- Stressful or upsetting memories settling into the forefront of your mind limiting mental space or freedom to recall other things
- Difficulty finding the words to express your thoughts and feelings
- Needing additional time to process thoughts or recall details
- Poor focus or concentration which limits your ability to process and store information for later
How trauma impacts your memory
Your brain's response to stressful or traumatic events has both short- and long-term effects.
Trauma impacts your memory by:
- Activating your fight-or-flight response
- Interrupting the memory process required to store and retrieve information
- Physical changes to the memory region of your brain
- Can cause mild cognitive impairment
Your memory in 'fight-or-flight' mode
The stress you experience from traumatic event can heighten your recall of the stressful details and simultaneously narrowing your memory of the smaller, peripheral details.
For Example: If you witnessed a car accident, you may vividly remember the sound of the brakes screeching until the cars hit head on with a loud, crashing sound. In that same moment, you may not remember exactly how many people were standing beside you or how long you were standing there.
While acute stress may help you form a new memory, it won’t help you remember everything. During this stress response your brain shuts down all non-essential systems and activates your sympathetic nervous system. As the threat passes, your brain will return to its normal functioning state, however, repeated activation of the flight-or-fight response can interfere with this process and create lasting changes within the brain.
Interrupting your memory process
Emotional trauma can interrupt your ability to create and retrieve memories. The memory process has three stages:
- Encoding, or the process of getting information into memory
- Storage, where and how much information is retained
- Retrieval, the process of accessing and recalling remembered information
The encoding process requires your mind to be present and to attend to information, which can't occur passively. Therefore, if you're in a state of mental distress or you're experiencing fatigue, difficulty concentrating and mental overwhelm, it's going to be challenging to encode new information. Additionally, traumatic stress can also keep stressful memories at the forefront of our minds, which can interfere with accessing or creating other memories.
Shrinking your hippocampus
Your hippocampus is the memory region of your brain. This area of the brain is responsible for storing and retrieving memories. Studies show that chronic stress from trauma can shrink the volume of this region of your brain, therefore leading to long term memory problems.
Can you get your memory back after emotional trauma?
You can overcome memory loss from trauma. Science continues to show us that brain change, and healing is possible at any age. Healing from trauma may require time, therapy, support and making changes to your lifestyle to support your physical and mental wellbeing.
You deserve to remain present and to thrive in the life you've worked so hard to create. If you’re experiencing signs of memory loss and you're ready to take the next step in restoring your clear thinking, I’d love to support you. As a memory health coach, I help people just like you get their memory back, strengthen it and keep it healthy for a lifetime.
Click here to schedule a free 30-minute memory health coaching consultation with me where we can discuss your unique concerns and how our Memory Confidence Method™ program can help you get back to clear thinking.