How PTSD & Memory Loss Are Connected

Updated September 30, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has some stigma attached to it. The disorder is usually associated with nightmares and what could be described as gruff behavior. It is often seen as a condition primarily affecting men and women who have been to war or who have seen other horrors. PTSD, though it is very often diagnosed in veterans, is more far-reaching than a single source and can impact people from all walks of life. PTSD can affect the very young (toddlers and on) and the very old. PTSD can result from a high-stress job or can be a result of a single, terrifying situation, as is the case when PTSD is diagnosed following a car accident. Its reasons are complex, and its symptoms are similarly intense. They can affect every aspect of your life.

Struggling With PTSD? Manage Your Symptoms To Improve Memory

PTSD And Memory Loss

One of the least-talked-about but most-often-affected regions of the brain affected by PTSD is your brain's memory function. One of PTSD’s core symptoms is impaired memory surrounding trauma. However, this is not the only way memory is impacted. Memory continues to falter even after the single event or events leading up to a PTSD diagnosis. Memory can continue to deteriorate into treatment and beyond if the mechanisms behind memory distortion, loss, and failure are not addressed.

How Does PTSD Affect Your Memory?

Initially, the process involved in storing trauma can make remembering the trauma altogether difficult. In some people, this looks like gaps in the memory of the traumatic event. For others, the sequencing of the event might be off; the timeline involved might be jumbled or unclear. Still, for others, the memory of the event is foggy or hazy, almost as though it was observed through smudged glasses, making it difficult to recall details clearly and efficiently.

Although the most common effect of PTSD on memory is related to the memory of the trauma causing the condition. PTSD can also impact your mind's ability to effectively store, recall, and synthesize memories received after the initial trauma. Memories might be hazy, jumbled, or missing spots – or the memories may be missing altogether. Some of these memories might be small ("How do I get to work, again?"), while others might prove quite significant ("When is my wife's birthday?").

Alzheimer's has been linked to PTSD, as those with PTSD are more likely to develop Alzheimer's in later life. It is unknown the exact reasons for this, and whether the predisposition for PTSD is also a predisposition for Alzheimer's, or if PTSD functions as a risk factor. In some populations, the risk of Alzheimer's is actually twice as high in people witha PTSD diagnosis, suggesting that the mental processes involved in PTSD may also be involved in dementia, and the loss of memory in both may be linked.

At times, PTSD can create almost ADHD-like symptoms, which can make memorization difficult and affect your ability to learn or take on new information. This process is thought to originate in the same part of the brain that regulates mood and synthesizes information, which may be why mood, cognition, and memory are all impacted and impaired by post-traumatic stress. This discovery could provide additional windows into treatment for PTSD and memory.

What Are The Implications?

The implications of lost memories and a faulty memorizing system are vast and extremely troubling. Memory is involved in every aspect of life and is a basic aspect of functioning as a healthy child or adult. Memory is used in school, in the workplace, and even in relationships, so being unable to grasp, file away, and procure memories effectively can cause significant harm to you in numerous areas.

When memory loss surrounding trauma occurs, this can be challenging for two reasons: processing the memory and healing from PTSD symptoms may be prolonged in instances when the memory is lost or at least partially obscured. Although it is not impossible, these instances can make the process more difficult and for the patient it can almost feel like re-experiencing the source of trauma once the memory is retrieved. It is also problematic if insurance or a court system is involved in PTSD treatment. If you cannot remember what happened or the sequence of events involved, investigations can be complicated or may also be prolonged.

Future memory loss is also of concern because memory is an invaluable part of daily functioning. For instance, you must have a functioning memory in order to get yourself to your job, perform basic living tasks, and take care of yourself, not to mention caring for children, improving your work performance, and other matters. Memory and concentration are also linked, which means that PTSD can also affect your ability to concentrate and focus, leading to trouble at work, school, in interpersonal relationships, and in interpersonal communication.

How Is PTSD-Derived Memory Loss Treated?

Memory loss can be improved during general PTSD treatment, as many specific PTSD symptoms subside during the treatment phase. Sleep might improve as memory is processed, which can help improve mental acuity and, by default, memorization. Exposure therapy is one of the most effective ways to treat PTSD.A therapist gradually encourages a patient to explore the trauma or events at the root of PTSD and works through those memories in a safe, controlled setting. This alone can sometimes break through the memory barrier, and as you continue teasing out the circumstances surrounding or directly related to the event, memories can begin to resurface.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and other trauma-based therapy modalities can also help retrieve or restore fuzzy or incomplete memories. The process of EMDR allows the brain to essentially relax and no longer hold on to instances of trauma. As you relax and begin to teach your brain how to let its guard down surrounding those memories, the mental images can become clearer and more robust, allowing you to remember or understand things that were previously fraught or missing.

Memory loss can be treated through more unconventional means, including treatment sources outside the realm of standard psychological intervention, such as supplemental efforts, meditation, and hypnosis. Although not all practitioners utilize these options, many people with PTSD grow desperate for relief and may begin to search out other means of eradicating symptoms. These options may have helped others anecdotally but are rarely used in conjunction with a therapist, as there are only preliminary studies identifying their efficacy in treatment.

Can Memories And Memory Strength Return?

Yes. With treatment, the memories suppressed or seemingly "lost" due toPTSD can be recovered, or existing memories can be righted. This requires willingness and trust, though, as the memories that have been suppressed or altered were changed to shield the patientfrom past trauma. This is often the case when people witness horrific scenes, including severe bodily harm. Some scenes are so gruesome the brain essentially removes pieces of the memory in order to hold off nightmares, terror, and shock. In the short-term, this is a useful process, but eventually, the memory or memories can (and will) re-emerge and will need to be processed and healed.

Struggling With PTSD? Manage Your Symptoms To Improve Memory

The Links Between PTSD And Memory

Memory and PTSD are inextricably linked. Memory isaffected in patients with PTSD as the areas of the brain responsible for processing emotions, memories, and information are all tied together, making a "flagged" memory a proverbial stick in the spokes of your mental processes. This change in your brain's ability to properly read and synthesize memories can also be harmful because it can make memories from years ago feel as though they are happening in the present moment.If memories are not read correctly, your sense of time is impeded, which can make processing and storing new information difficult.

Memory is an integral part of day-to-day living. Living with past or present memory impairments can make even the simplest function extremely difficult or impossible. This is one of the reasons PTSD treatment is so vital; although it might seem like a narrowly focused condition, its symptoms actually bleed over into virtually every part of lifeand can begin to show negative effects quickly. Memory and cognition are required to complete work tasks, maintain interpersonal relationships, and complete school assignments, all of which can have lasting consequences if they fall by the wayside.

Fortunately, PTSD and its corresponding memory loss are absolutely treatable. Although relapse is possible,even a 14-18-week treatment schedule provides a solid foundation for lasting change and relief. If you have PTSD and experience significant memory impairments, or you suspect you might have memory impairments even without the knowledge or previous diagnosis of PTSD, reach out to a health professional on BetterHelp to begin the journey of healing.

Research indicates that online therapy is a useful option for people with PTSD and can be more efficient than face-to-face treatment. The study shows that web-based therapy can allow a patient to maintain the important therapeutic relationship found in more traditional therapy treatment settings. This means patients have the opportunity to develop a strong connection to their counselor.

BetterHelp therapists will also let you go at your own pace. There's no timeline on healing from trauma, and your counselor understands this. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors helping people like you.

“I really enjoy working with Daniel. His expertise and knowledge in his field are extensive yet relatable. He provides effective strategies in working through PTSD issues with a kind and direct technique. I highly recommend him!”

“Jean has been so helpful for me, we have been meeting for about a month now, she is super flexible, very knowledgeable in a lot of things, and personalizes each session according to my particular events and concerns. I highly recommend if you are struggling with past abuse, trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc. She's awesome.”

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