Your mind is capable of extraordinary things, and protecting you from painful and traumatic memories may be one of them.
When an experience is significantly shocking and it overwhelms your innate coping mechanisms and resources, your body may look for ways to process the experience. On rare occasions, memory loss could be an effect of trauma.
Memory loss describes a broad range of symptoms that may present with an inability to recall certain or all details of a lived experience. It’s often referred to as “amnesia.”
Partial or total memory loss can be caused by a number of factors, including:
- brain injury
- chronic (long-term) illness or viral infection
- high fevers
- substance use
- cerebrovascular accidents (stroke)
- mental health conditions
- traumatic stress
In some cases, such as with injury or illness, memories may fade away as the result of damage to specific parts of the brain.
When it comes to amnesia from a traumatic experience, however, memories may still be there — just hidden away and inaccessible.
‘Hiding’ memories in the brain
One possible reason your brain pauses extremely painful memories is that it’s trying to protect itself.
If an experience has been significantly disturbing and painful, even the thought of it may still be overwhelming.
As a result, your brain could take over and decide you don’t have to relive that experience in your mind. It may lock that memory away from your consciousness. Amnesia is taking you away and protecting you from reliving that experience.
How the brain suppresses these memories was shrouded in mystery until 2015, when a rodent
Memory subpaths refer to a chain of communication between brain cells, or neurons, that are in charge of sending information about lived experiences. It’s like a memory road in the brain, so to speak.
According to the research, fear-inducing events affect specific cell receptors — for the amino acid GABA — in these paths in the brain.
Because of that, those receptors bypass the traditional memory pathways during a fearful event, creating a new memory network. In other words, they take a different road than typical memories so those memories don’t arrive at the usual destination.
Unlike regular memories, these alternate-pathway memories are locked away, only able to be accessed if the same receptors become active again.
More research in humans is needed to determine the exact mechanism that leads the brain to encode traumatic memories differently.
What kind of trauma causes memory loss?
Trauma refers to an emotional response to any significantly distressing event or incident.
What’s significantly painful to you may not be the same as what’s significant for somebody else. So, the traumatic experience that leads to memory loss may be different for everyone.
Not every traumatic experience leads to memory loss. This effect may vary based on factors such as:
- your mental health status at the moment of the event
- the support you received immediately after the event
- your emotional resources at the moment of the event
- the intensity and length of the incident
While PTSD can involve trauma-related memory loss, not all traumatic stress results in PTSD, and not all trauma-related memory loss is linked to PTSD.
Memory loss is a complex symptom and can be experienced as a result of a number of trauma-related mental health conditions.
Some concepts related to traumatic memory loss that are explored by different psychologic approaches include:
Previously known as “psychogenic amnesia,” dissociative amnesia is listed as a mental health condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).
Dissociative amnesia is mainly characterized by an inability to recall important information about yourself as a result of dissociation, which is most commonly related to trauma or extreme stress.
Dissociative amnesia often occurs with symptoms of PTSD.
What is dissociation?
Dissociation is a disconnect or distance from your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, as if you were watching yourself from the perspective of someone else.
Pattern separation is the process your brain goes through to differentiate between similar experiences.
You may have gone to the dentist twice, for example, but you can remember each visit individually, despite them having many of the same features.
When you experience traumatic stress or anxiety, problems with pattern separation
This may feel like memory loss because your response becomes vague rather than specific.
Repressed memories are a highly debated concept in psychology.
According to the original psychoanalytic theory, traumatic experiences can result in complete memory repression.
This led early psychoanalytic experts down the rabbit hole of trying to recover people’s lost memories, only to be faced with controversy when some people “remembered” traumas that weren’t real. These “memories” were, instead, the accidental result of therapy-guided suggestion.
Now, the mainstream belief is that full memory repression is almost nonexistent. Most people are able to recall at least some parts of a traumatic incident, even though the memory may be incomplete.
This doesn’t mean your memories are gone. Instead, denial helps you undermine the reliability of memory in a process often known as “denial-induced forgetting.” So, the memory may be there, but you don’t consider it significant, or you may not be sure it happened that way.
Ways trauma impacts memory in the brain
Many theories about memory processing exist. According to a 2017 literature review, most mainstream concepts break down implicit and explicit memory into three primary categories:
- sensory memory
- short-term memory
- long-term memory
Within those categories are many additional memory subcategories, including:
- Semantic memory: general knowledge
- Episodic memory: autobiographical content of an event
- Emotional memory: feelings experienced during an event
- Procedural memory: ability to perform tasks without conscious thought
Traumatic stress can affect any one of these. In each category, it may look like this:
- Semantic memory: an inability to link events, words, or thoughts together to create a memory
- Episodic memory: fragmented memories about how you experienced the order of an event
- Emotional memory: heightened fear response from unrelated memories
- Procedural memory: habits may change or emerge out of fear anticipation
Healing from trauma is possible. And that includes possible symptoms of it, such as memory loss.
Amnesia from traumatic experiences can be better addressed with the support of a mental health professional. They’ll help you explore the root cause of the memory loss, as well as any other symptoms you might be experiencing from the trauma.
Working with a mental health professional can help you safely process some of the painful memories that might return to you during therapy.
You can also explore your options with them and discuss if recalling details of the event is the best way to go, or if you’d rather focus on healing the emotional pain you may be experiencing.
Some of the therapy options that can help with traumatic memory loss and other symptoms of trauma include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- prolonged exposure (PE) therapy
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Support is available, and you don’t have to do this alone.