10th May 2023
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has many symptoms, one of which is memory loss. Though memory loss from PTSD is perhaps not as recognized as other PTSD symptoms, it can nevertheless cause significant impairment of daily living. Fortunately, PTSD and memory loss are highly treatable with traditional therapies and self-help techniques.
Brain scans of patients with PTSD reveal a physical change in their brains - the hippocampus is smaller than expected. The hippocampus is involved in a variety of functions, including:
Damage to the hippocampus can affect each of these functions. Unfortunately, the hippocampus is extremely delicate and vulnerable. This is why so many patients with psychiatric and neurological disorders experience damage to this area of the brain.
Hippocampal damage in PTSD patients may cause various symptoms ranging from memory issues to learning difficulties to mood changes. Likewise, fear, anxiety, and flashbacks may develop due to damage to this area. Researchers theorize that the hippocampus is where these various processes come together and simultaneously malfunction due to the damage that's sustained.
Furthermore, it’s thought that this damage may prevent people with PTSD from properly processing events like nightmares and flashbacks. While someone who does not have PTSD can deal with the anxiety that results from nightmares and flashbacks, someone with PTSD often cannot. Instead, they might experience high levels of anxiety for long periods.
But it isn’t just the hippocampus that researchers believe is associated with memory loss from PTSD. The amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex are perhaps involved as well. The former is involved in processing fearful or dangerous stimuli, and the latter is associated with long-term memory, attention, and inhibitory control, among other processes.
Another layer to this is that the damage to these areas doesn’t have to be recent to result in memory loss and other PTSD symptoms. Studies indicate that stressors early in life may change the morphology of the hippocampus, but that the resulting symptoms of those changes might not manifest until adulthood. Additionally, early stressors can alter the functioning of the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex.
Fortunately, memory loss with PTSD can be treated. As discussed below, PTSD treatments enable the proper processing of memories and can help minimize nightmares and flashbacks, which, in turn, improves daily memory functioning.
PTSD is linked to deficits in several specific types of memory functioning. In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) includes memory difficulties as one of the potential diagnostic criteria for this psychiatric disorder.
While the specific type of memory disturbances experienced may vary from patient to patient, some common memory problems are likely to occur. These are outlined below.
In some cases, patients with PTSD cannot recall details of their trauma. This isn’t to say they don’t remember the trauma at all. Rather, the memories of the event might be fragmented and disorganized, making the patient unable to recall specific details of the experience.
Furthermore, a hallmark symptom of PTSD is avoiding (or attempting to avoid) distressing memories, feelings, and thoughts about the event. Closely related is avoiding people, places, and other external reminders of the event. The desire to avoid these memories can be so strong that recalling the traumatic event becomes much more difficult.
Related to the above point is that some people with memory loss from PTSD experience a partial or total inability to access the memories of their associated trauma. This is called dissociative amnesia.
This type of amnesia is typically brought on by trauma, which is a primary cause of dissociative disorders. The resulting memory loss is abnormal because it would otherwise not be expected. In other words, the memory loss results from a traumatic experience rather than a brain injury, drug use, or alcohol use.
One’s ability to recall things like facts and events relies on declarative memory, which is a type of long-term memory. People with PTSD often develop problems in this area, which makes sense given that the hippocampus is heavily involved in this type of memory processing.
Deficits in verbal declarative memory don’t seem to be associated with a specific type of trauma, either. Studies have shown reduced verbal declarative memory capabilities in people who have experienced trauma that ranges from military combat to sexual assault to child abuse.
Another type of memory disturbance often experienced by people with PTSD is the loss of everyday short-term memory. For example, someone with PTSD might have trouble remembering what they did that day, what they said, or have difficulties with spatial memory, such as recalling where they’ve placed items, like car keys.
Additionally, research shows that people with PTSD have trouble organizing and segmenting memories into separate units. The ability to do so helps us recall those memories later on, which is why this particular deficit results in short-term memory loss in the PTSD patient population.
If you or someone you know has PTSD, there are many simple yet effective strategies you can use to manage its symptoms and improve memory functioning. In addition to seeking appropriate mental health care and support from loved ones, you can implement the following strategies: [8,9]
Ultimately, as it pertains to memory, one of the best things you can do is minimize the stressors in your daily life. Stress reduces our ability to focus and, as such, can make memory problems even worse. The strategies outlined above are all good ways to take some of the stress out of the equation.
Ultimately, it’s time to seek professional help when the symptoms of your PTSD or memory loss become too much for you to manage on your own. As noted earlier, PTSD and memory loss respond well to various treatments, so seeking help could be the first step toward improved functioning.
There are two primary types of treatments for PTSD: therapy and medication. In many cases, a combination of the two is preferable.
A well-known therapy for PTSD is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of talk therapy focuses on exploring negative thinking patterns and changing those patterns to affect improved outcomes.
Group therapy is also common for PTSD. The shared experience and social support garnered by participation in group therapy can help you work through the emotions and feelings of your trauma.
Common PTSD medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Zoloft and Prozac, which boost the level of serotonin in the brain. These antidepressants help alleviate PTSD symptoms like avoidant behaviors, cognitive changes, and mood changes.
A different type of antidepressant, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors - SNRIs - (e.g., Effexor), increase the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, which reduces symptoms much like SSRIs do.
Less common medications for PTSD symptoms include serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). These drugs aren’t as effective as SSRIs and SNRIs and are typically prescribed if other options don’t produce the desired effect.
Again, if your symptoms have become too much for you to handle on your own, seek professional help. Medications and therapy can help you effectively manage your symptoms and return to improved daily functioning.