PTSD And Memory Loss
According to the National Center for PTSD, about 6 percent of the US population develops PTSD at some time in their lives. People who develop PTSD after a traumatic event start experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks, avoidance of stimuli that remind them of the event, and mood changes. But aside from emotional symptoms, a pervasive impact of PTSD is that you start experiencing cognitive impairments, such as memory loss and an inability to form new memories.
PTSD-related memory loss can be stressful, and when combined with other cognitive difficulties, it can impair your functioning in different situations. Due to the prevalence of trauma-related stress, these symptoms are quite common among people with stress disorders like PTSD. So, it’s worth taking a look at how PTSD can cause memory loss, signs of memory loss from PTSD, and possible treatment options.
What Is PTSD?
It’s a mental health condition that can occur when you’ve experienced or witnessed a traumatic event or a series of distressing events. Such an experience can feel emotionally or physically damaging and can impact your sense of physical, mental, or emotional well-being. Common examples of traumatic events are serious accidents, terrorist actions, sexual assault, or natural disasters.
The condition can result in intense, disturbing feelings and thoughts regarding the experience. These feelings can persist long after the event, and you may even relive the event through nightmares or flashbacks. You may feel intense emotions like fear, anger, and sadness and detach yourself from others. It’s also common to avoid places, people, or situations that could remind you of the event and have intense reactions to stimuli like a loud noise.
Does PTSD Cause Memory Loss?
It’s quite common to experience changes in memory and memory loss when you develop PTSD. In fact, there’s evidence that PTSD does, in fact, result in memory loss. The research on declarative memory functioning and PTSD shows that brain regions like the prefrontal cortex or hippocampus are affected.
However, some studies also point to memory dysfunction as a risk factor for the development of PTSD as well. It implies that pre-existing neurocognitive deficits result in a higher risk of PTSD because of ineffective coping skills. So, when you develop PTSD, it results in greater cognitive dysfunction.
Effect On Your Hippocampus
The hippocampus, which is part of the limbic system, is responsible for emotions, learning, and making new memories. This area of the brain is vulnerable to damage due to factors like disease, injury, and stress. This includes neurological and psychiatric conditions like depression, schizophrenia, and PTSD. Research indicates that a diagnosis of PTSD is associated with a reduction of volume in the hippocampus. Moreover, people with greater symptom severity have lower hippocampal volume.
Affects Current Perception
The changes in memory that occur as a result of PTSD can have effects on how you perceive your current timeframe and surroundings. According to one study, dissociative symptoms are common in people with PTSD, which can result in a dysregulation of time perception. Developing PTSD can impact your ability to determine contextual aspects of your environment, making it harder to tell the difference between recent and past memories. Another study shows that traumatized people reported touch stimuli to be less comforting. These findings indicate that having PTSD can make it harder to stay calm when exposed to reminders of trauma.
Effects on Emotion Processing and Language
The cognitive effects of PTSD go beyond memory loss and affect your perception of different emotions as well. Because the hippocampus is responsible for emotions and memory formation, damage to this part of the brain can affect how you experience emotions. Practitioners have described a restriction in emotional experience as ‘emotional numbing.’ However, one study indicates that the difficulty of processing positive emotions is linked to hyperresponsivity to negative emotional stimuli.
At the same time, studies show that PTSD is linked to cognitive issues that hinder language acquisition. For instance, it can affect your inclination to learn a language, use a certain language, or stay silent.
Signs of Memory Loss from PTSD
Because a traumatic event can put undue strain on the limbic system and hippocampus, it can lead to problems in memory retention and formation. Common signs of these issues include:
Memories of Traumatic Events Can Become Distorted
Traumatic memories are prone to distortion, making it difficult to sequentially recount the details of the traumatic event. Unfortunately, distortion of traumatic events can cause you to remember more trauma than you experienced. This memory amplification can lead to increases in re-experiencing symptoms that are commonly associated with PTSD in the form of intrusive images and thoughts. Such symptoms make it harder to articulate the experience and form connections with others.
Lapses in Autobiographical Memory
People with complex PTSD may have trouble recalling autobiographical memories that typically include important milestones, relationships, or life events. This can occur due to co-occurring dissociative amnesia and complex PTSD, which can occur due to prolonged or repeated trauma. In cases of severe trauma, another associated symptom involves forgetting crucial personal information like your address or telephone number.
As mentioned above, PTSD is linked to re-experiencing symptoms, which cause you to relive the experience or see vivid flashbacks. Although these intrusive thoughts don’t result in memory loss, they can impact the process of memory formation and affect your ability to recall other information. And as re-experiencing symptoms worsen due to the distortion of traumatic memories, they further affect your ability to make and recall new memories.
Poor Memory Consolidation
In memory consolidation, your brain transforms temporary memories into a more long-lasting form. PTSD symptoms like dissociation, hyperarousal, and intrusive flashbacks occur because of a failure to consolidate and emotionally depotentiate traumatic memories. This can end up affecting the consolidation of other unrelated memories as well.
Issues With Working Memory
In addition to symptoms like avoidance of trauma reminders, intrusive memories, and hypervigilance, researchers have pointed to deficits in working memory due to PTSD. According to one study, veterans with PTSD made more errors on a task that required accessing recent memories.
PTSD and Risk of Dementia
The results of recent studies show that having PTSD can result in a higher chance of developing dementia compared to people without PTSD. The results of a 2020 meta-analysis showed significant associations between having PTSD and the risk of dementia. This shows how PTSD is a major risk factor for the development of dementia.
Although further research is needed to understand the link between the two conditions, researchers point to the effects of PTSD on cellular aging. These findings are based on aspects like lower synaptic plasticity, chronic inflammation, and higher oxidative stress. Other experts point to how PTSD can enhance the effects of a few neurobiological pathways, like the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Altered activity in this neural pathway can affect your response to stress and cause a reduction in hippocampal volume. These mechanisms, in turn, increase your vulnerability to neuropathology that causes dementia.
Types of Memory Affected by PTSD
As humans, forming, storing, and recalling memories is complex and requires using different parts of the brain to work successfully. We have both short and long-term memory, and developing PTSD can affect both types of memory in different ways. One example includes a 2022 study that investigated the connection between PTSD symptom severity and whether participants could remember everyday activities.
In the study, participants watched videos detailing everyday activities and tried recalling their contents. The results indicate that people with severe PTSD symptoms reported greater difficulty with memory recall as opposed to those with fewer symptoms.
Effects On Short-Term Memory
Similarly, another study involving asylum seekers shows showed that the participant group experienced short-term current memory loss. This, in turn, makes it harder to complete basic tasks like maintaining interactions with family and performing at the workplace. In the study, about 70 percent of participants met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, while 20 percent of them displayed signs of memory loss.
The results also conclude that PTSD and major depression are associated with memory loss, which is why they impact memories of both traumatic events and current tasks.
Effects on Episodic Memory
In a study on the effect of PTSD on memory impairments, researchers found that participants with PTSD experience episodic memory deficits. Episodic memory is your ability to learn, store, and recall information about experiences that occur in daily life.
Another finding is that the episodic memory impairments in PTSD were significant in verbal memory tests as opposed to non-verbal memory tests. The results of the study provide evidence that PTSD is linked to impairments in episodic memory beyond the traumatic event and that these deficits are significant in verbal memory.
The Impact Of PTSD-Related Memory Loss
Experiencing memory loss as a result of PTSD can have a lasting impact on your life. Not being able to recall or store information can impair your ability to maintain daily functions. For instance, you may ignore household responsibilities, workplace obligations, or doctor’s appointments. This can end up affecting your workplace performance, personal relationships, and other aspects of life.
Effects On Self-Image
Not being able to recall details of the event makes it harder to describe what happened, causing feelings of isolation. Additionally, forgetting traumatic events from your past can result in identity disruption and feeling like your experiences aren’t legitimate. Similarly, poor work performance due to impaired working memory can lead to a loss of confidence and increased dissatisfaction with oneself.
Effects On Personal Safety
PTSD-related memory loss can threaten your physical and emotional well-being. You may forget to take safety precautions or follow important instructions, leading to injuries, accidents, or self-harm behaviors. If not, you can end up forgetting to take your medication or attending medical appointments, which means neglecting your self-care.
Effects On The Therapeutic Process
Keep in mind that successful therapeutic interventions are contingent on learning and application of healthy coping strategies. Not to mention, recalling a traumatic event is an important aspect of the healing process during psychotherapy. So, when you’re receiving treatment for PTSD but struggle with memory loss, it can hinder the therapeutic process. Having gaps in your memory makes it harder to understand your trauma and move on from it during therapy.
Another effect of PTSD-related memory loss is that it can cause worry and anxiety due to the fear of losing more memories or being unsure of your recollections. This can take a toll on your overall well-being and self-esteem.
Fixing Memory Loss From PTSD
To address memory loss that occurs because of PTSD, it’s important to start with the disorder itself. Here are some of the common options for reducing symptoms of memory loss, maintaining recollections of traumatic events, and improving your sense of well-being.
The first step is to consult a professional and seek treatment for PTSD. As a stress disorder, it won’t go away on its own and requires the assistance of a professional to start implementing effective coping strategies and alleviating symptoms. Evidence-based treatment options, which are discussed in detail below, can include CBT, pharmacotherapy, exposure therapy, and EMDR therapy. By reducing the intensity of PTSD symptoms and healing from your trauma, you can recall traumatic events and form stable, long-term memories.
For a long time, researchers have proven the link between exercise and specific functions of mental health, like memory. In fact, the results of these studies show that maintaining a consistent exercise routine doesn’t just improve your memory but protects the brain from the risk of future memory issues. In a study on the effects of physical activity on participants who struggled with memory loss, researchers found that mood improved and cognitive decline reduced. That’s because engaging in physical activity helps strengthen new neural pathways, helping you consolidate and retain memories.
Get Quality Sleep
When learning new information, much of what you learn is stored in sub-cortical regions and the hippocampus. However, this area of the brain has limited space, making it difficult to retain a certain amount of information. Studies show that Stage 2 and Stage 3 sleep can enhance the ability to form new memories. Specifically, the slow brain waves of stage 3 sleep can act as a courier service that transports memories from the hippocampus to permanent storage sites.
Also, remember that memory consolidation is a significant part of the memory cycle in PTSD treatment because it’s accessible to therapeutic intervention. Clinicians can help reorganize fragile traces of traumatic memories and integrate them into long-term storage centers.
Although the process occurs when you’re awake, it’s facilitated during sleep, so it can take years to develop fully. Therefore, improving sleep hygiene and getting better quality sleep is essential for improving your memory as well.
Implement Memory Aids
While you’re seeking treatment for PTSD, implementing memory aids can help you stay organized and retain information. These days, it’s easier to use memory aids thanks to smartphone applications that function as reminders, alarms, and to-do lists. Other strategies include writing down contact numbers, preparing shopping lists, and writing in a journal as a way to keep track of any interactions or appointments.
Treatment Approaches For PTSD-Related Memory Loss
While self-help techniques can certainly help reduce the effects of memory loss due to PTSD, therapeutic intervention is necessary. Strategies like getting better sleep and exercising can strengthen memory formation, but for these techniques to work, you need to move on from the traumatic event. The following are a few PTSD treatment approaches meant to alleviate symptoms by helping you move on from the experience.
Among the different treatment modalities used for addressing PTSD and associated memory loss, EMDR therapy is perhaps the most effective. Unlike some other modes of psychotherapy that can be provided in a group format, EMDR is an evidence-based individual practice that takes place on a weekly basis, continuing for about 6 to 12 sessions.
Compared to other modes of treatment that focus on altering your thoughts and responses towards a distressing memory of a traumatic event, EMDR focuses on reprocessing the memory. The aim of this therapy is to change how you store that particular memory in the brain, thereby reducing the extent of problematic and difficult symptoms.
EMDR involves using bilateral stimulation like back-and-forth eye movements or tapping sounds, which stimulates an accelerated learning process. The process of bilateral stimulation continues until the memory is no longer distressing. Then, your practitioner helps strengthen your preferred positive cognition.
This is a behavioral approach to treating PTSD that works by targeting the learned behaviors you engage in when confronted with reminders of the traumatic event. For instance, someone who has been sexually assaulted may avoid going out or being alone in a room with people who resemble their attacker.
In exposure therapy, you work with a clinician to reduce the fear of stimuli that remind you of the event and improve your quality of life. You do this by confronting feared emotions, thoughts, and situations and learning that exposure to certain stimuli isn’t always unsafe. Some of the techniques involved in exposure therapy include imaginal exposure, in vivo exposure, interoceptive exposure, and prolonged exposure, which is a combination of the aforementioned three methods.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
In CBT, your therapist can use different techniques to help reduce your symptoms and enhance functioning. A common concept is that of cognitive restructuring, in which the clinician encourages you to re-evaluate your thoughts about the event to identify dysfunctional patterns. Other techniques can include exposure to the trauma narrative, or safe reminders of the emotions you associate with the trauma can help reduce avoidance.
In psychoeducation, your clinician informs you about how your trauma can have an impact on you. This awareness can help you facilitate relaxation and create a response plan that you can implement in times of crisis.
Currently, the evidence base for PTSD psychopharmacology is the strongest for SSRIs and SNRIs, both of which are antidepressants. These medications are recommended because of how serotonin can impact things like mood, anxiety, appetite, and sleep.
It’s common for people with PTSD to experience depressed feelings and anxiety as a result of PTSD symptoms. However, such feelings can impair the efficacy of treatment. By prescribing antidepressants, you can improve adherence to treatment and allow positive outcomes.
Inpatient Treatment With a Holistic Approach
Another treatment option if you’re struggling with PTSD and associated memory loss is to enroll in an inpatient treatment program. The aim of such a program is to provide you with an environment that’s conducive to recovery. This includes comfortable accommodation, balanced nutrition, recreational activities, and various amenities. By providing a separate treatment facility, you recover in a safe space, away from possible triggers and reminders of the traumatic event.
A core aspect of residential treatment is that it follows a holistic approach. Therefore, it offers a combination of both evidence-based and complementary treatments. The purpose of an integrative approach is to focus on optimal well-being, which is why there’s a focus on balanced nutrition, regular exercise, and relaxation techniques like acupuncture, therapeutic massage, and yoga therapy.
PTSD is a challenging condition that can lead to symptoms like avoidance of reminder stimuli, vivid flashbacks, and memory loss. The link between PTSD and memory loss is due to the effect of trauma on the hippocampus, which helps with memory formation and is vulnerable to stress-related damage. In addition to memory loss, PTSD can also impair your perception of current stimuli and affect things like emotional processing and language. Signs of memory loss include distorted memories of the traumatic event, lapses in autobiographical memory, and poor memory consolidation. There’s evidence to indicate that PTSD impacts short-term memory and is a risk factor for dementia. It’s possible to address the issue through professional treatment, regular exercise, improved sleep, and the use of memory aids. Treatment approaches include the use of medication, CBT and exposure therapy, EMDR therapy, and inpatient treatment.