How Trauma Affects Your Memory

Trauma and Memory Loss

Memory loss is a frustrating and sometimes scary experience, especially if the memory loss is caused by a traumatic event. Research shows that there is a definite relationship between occurrences of emotional, psychological or physical trauma 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 Trauma Affects the Brain

A traumatic incident can cause a great deal of stress in both the short term and the long term. That stress response can have an impact on different areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex. In fact, those areas of the brain can change in shape and volume, and experience diminished function. 

Not coincidentally, these are areas of the brain that are strongly associated with memory function. The prefrontal cortex helps process working memory, the information that we need to remember on an everyday basis. The hippocampus is also a major memory center in the brain. The left hippocampus focuses on memorizing facts and recognition, while the right hippocampus is associated with spatial memory. The hippocampus also gives us a way to learn by comparing past memories with present experiences. And the amygdala processes fear-based memories; if you ever burned your hand on a stove once, you remember not to touch the hot surface again because the memory is processed and stored by the amygdala. The amygdala is also believed to help with the formation of long-term memory. Trauma-based memory loss, therefore, can easily occur when the trauma creates stress that negatively affects the brain.

A traumatic event can be so intense that it can spark posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This psychiatric condition has long been associated with war-related experiences, but it can also be triggered by various events including accidents, attacks and natural disasters. There are three different kinds of PTSD: acute (symptoms end in three months or less), chronic (symptoms continue for more than three months) and delayed-onset (where symptoms don’t present themselves until well after the traumatic event has occurred). In addition to memory loss, people with PTSD may experience angry outbursts, irrational behavior, detachment from friends and family and feelings of guilt or shame, among other symptoms. PTSD memory loss can add to the stress someone experiences and may intensify certain symptoms even more.

When it comes to trauma and memory loss, there are different types of trauma that can cause temporary or permanent problems.      

Physical Trauma and Memory Loss

Physical trauma can greatly affect your memory, especially if brain damage occurs as a result of the injury. Physical trauma such as a head injury or stroke can damage the brain and impair a person’s ability to process information and store information, the main functions of memory.

Another form of brain damage that directly affects memory is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which is a consequence of chronic alcohol abuse. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a combination of two disorders: Wernicke’s Disorder, in which poor nutrition damages the nerves in both the central and peripheral nervous system, and Korsakoff’s Syndrome, which impairs memory, problem-solving skills and learning abilities. Severe injuries and physical trauma can also produce post-traumatic stress disorder, which can cause temporary memory loss to help a person cope with the traumatic event that caused the injury.

In the case of physical trauma, the length of memory loss depends on the severity of the injury.

Emotional or Psychological Trauma and Memory Loss

Emotional or psychological trauma can also affect your memory. Memory loss is a natural survival skill and defense mechanism humans develop to protect themselves from psychological damage. Violence, sexual abuse and other emotionally traumatic events can lead to dissociative amnesia, which helps a person cope by allowing them to temporarily forget details of the event. With this type of memory loss, which is also called psychogenic amnesia or functional amnesia, a person will often suppress memories of a traumatic event until they are ready to handle them, which may never occur. This situation-specific memory loss helps block out the traumatic event, but another type of dissociative amnesia, called global amnesia, can cause a person to forget who they are for a brief period of time; they can also experience confusion or depression. Dissociative amnesia can range from mild to severe, and it can lead to dysfunction in relationships and the daily activities associated with normal life.

Emotional or psychological trauma can also lead to posttraumatic stress disorder, which can manifest itself in different ways including flashbacks of the event and intrusive, unwanted thoughts about the trauma. Repressed memories and PTSD are also common. Without treatment, these repressed memories may resurface at any time with a trigger event and if they are revisited over and over, the brain continues to experience the trauma anew each time.

Healing from Trauma-Induced Memory Loss

Recovering from a traumatic experience can take days, weeks or even months. Memory loss can come back suddenly, but the underlying traumatic cause must be addressed for authentic healing. Everyone heals at their own pace, but if several months have gone by and your symptoms have not gotten better, then it may be time to seek professional help. It’s also a good idea to seek professional help if you:

* Have trouble functioning at home or work.

* Suffer from severe fear, anxiety or depression.

* Are experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares or flashbacks.

* Are emotionally numb and disconnected from others.

* Are avoiding things that remind you of the trauma.

* Are using alcohol or drugs to feel better.

If you fall into any of the categories above, then contact a trauma specialist today. A certified therapist can help you process the traumatic event and finally start healing your emotional trauma. You can also seek help with a center qualified in trauma treatment, where individualized plans with a variety of modalities can be employed to address your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual needs.

Under the care of a treatment facility, you’ll be able to work with a trauma specialist to process your trauma-related feelings and memories, stop the “fight or flight” response, learn how to control your emotions and rebuild your ability to trust other people. All of this will be done through a series of therapy sessions combined with emotional trauma treatments. Some of these treatments might include cognitive behavioral therapy, somatic experiencing and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Cognitive behavioral therapy instills valuable coping mechanisms that can be used in times of stress. Somatic experiencing focuses on the body’s response to stress, as well as the brain’s response, to help unstick the traumatic event. And EMDR helps patients gain control over memories that are unpleasant or unwanted. In certain cases where someone also exhibits signs of depression or an anxiety disorder, antidepressant medication may be recommended as well.

Patients who have suffered memory loss due to physical trauma can sometimes benefit from surgery. After surgery, therapy is needed to help them recover their lost memories. Patients who suffer memory loss due to Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome should seek treatment right away at an alcohol rehab, where their substance abuse issues can be properly addressed.

If you are experiencing co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorder, it’s critical to seek treatment with a reputable dual-diagnosis facility. Instead of just treating one of the disorders, dual-diagnosis centers address both concerns equally. If your trauma has sparked a drug or alcohol addiction, you can’t separate the two—they are both enmeshed with each other and need to be worked on simultaneously. Both of the disorders can seriously and negatively affect your mind, body and spirit, so it can be helpful for your recovery to take part in complementary therapies such as yoga and tai chi that encourage positive goal-setting, expressiveness and a focus on whole-person health. Combined with therapy and medical treatments, this makes for a well-rounded program for healing. 

Anyone who’s been through a traumatic experience knows that psychological, emotional and physical trauma hurt deeply. Start the journey to healing and find a way to stop the pain by calling a treatment facility today.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.