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Trauma & Memory Loss: Trauma’s Effect on the Brain

04/04/2023

Trauma and memory loss can go hand in hand. A physical injury to the parts of the brain that affect information storage, such as the prefrontal cortex, can hamper how a person learns new information and remembers past events, particularly those surrounding the traumatic incident. Emotional trauma, such as that caused by verbal abuse, homelessness, and chronic fear, can also have a detrimental effect on memory by elevating a person’s cortisol levels and triggering their “fight or flight” response.

In this article, we’ll answer how trauma affects the brain and offer solutions to better cope with memory loss caused by physical and emotional trauma.

 

Does Trauma Cause Memory Loss?

Physical trauma, such as a head injury or a stroke, as well as emotional trauma caused by things such as fear and witnessing violence, can affect memory. This is usually because trauma affects the areas of the brain that process and store information. How long the memory loss lasts or if it’s permanent generally depends on how severe the injury or trauma is.

Types of Trauma

There are several types of trauma that can affect the brain:

  • Acute trauma: Results from a single incident, such as a car accident or a fall
  • Chronic trauma: Results from repeated and prolonged injuries, such as football or stock car driving
  • Complex trauma: Usually results from a series of negative events that happen over a period of time, such as a child who witnesses a parent being hurt and then experiences violence in their life

Developmental trauma: Severe childhood stress such as homelessness, violence, abuse, neglect, and hunger

Types of Memory Loss

Not all memory loss associated with trauma is the same. There are four major types of trauma-related memory loss:

  • Retrograde amnesia: When a person can’t remember the incident that caused the trauma and the events shortly before or after the incident
  • Anterograde amnesia: When a person has a diminished ability to learn new information following trauma
  • Dissociative amnesia: When a person has gaps in memory that are usually surrounding traumatic events

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related memory loss: When a person experiences gaps in memory surrounding traumatic events, and can also include loss of declarative memory, which allows a person to do everyday tasks

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How Trauma Causes Memory Loss

Memory loss from trauma can be caused by either physical or stress-related issues, or both. If the frontal lobe of the brain, specifically the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), prefrontal cortex (PFC), insula, or hippocampus, is injured in an accident or other event, it can affect the brain’s ability to process and retain information. Stressful events, such as verbal abuse, violence, or intense fear, can trigger PTSD-related memory loss.

Some neurological effects of trauma that cause memory loss include:

  • Elevated cortisol levels: Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone, activated when a person experiences the “fight or flight” response. Usually, this elevated level dissipates after a stressful event. However, after trauma, high levels of cortisol can cause memory loss.
  • Disrupted prefrontal cortex function: Injury to the brain’s prefrontal cortex can also cause memory loss as well as dementia and even schizophrenia by reducing neural activity.

Disrupted amygdala function. The amygdala is often referred to as the “fear center of the brain.” Increased activity here can disrupt communication between this part of the brain and other parts, such as the hippocampus, that are responsible for storing information.

The Link Between Trauma and PTSD-Related Memory Loss

PTSD symptoms can include memory loss, especially surrounding the traumatic event, and disruptive memories that pop into a person’s consciousness uninvited. These disruptive memories are sometimes called flashbacks and usually involve the events surrounding the traumatic incident.

As a protection against memories that are too difficult for the person to process, the brain may suppress memories of the traumatic event. In addition, a person with PTSD may consciously avoid thinking about the traumatic events or discussing them with anyone. These suppressed memories may reappear as nightmares. People with PTSD are at a higher than normal risk for depression and anxiety disorders.

Coping with Trauma-Related Memory Loss

The good news is that there are several effective ways to combat trauma-related memory loss.

Therapy

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Cognitive behavioral therapy has been effective in treating many types of trauma-related memory loss. This type of therapy involves talking with a therapist about the traumatic events and minimizing so-called false memories of traumatic events.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): This type of therapy, which combines talking about traumatic events with physical motions or eye movement, helps people with trauma-related memory loss feel better when a memory comes to mind.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): DBT consists of learning new skills that can help a person effectively cope with dysregulated emotions and harmful thought patterns, including memory suppression or flashbacks.

Medications

Some medications can be effective in treating PTSD and other types of trauma-related memory loss. These include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants that help to increase the body’s absorption of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate a person’s mood. Also often prescribed for PTSD and other types of trauma-related memory loss are medications to treat mild dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, such as Donepezil.

Self-Care Practices

  • Exercise: Exercise not only eases stress, which reduces cortisol levels, but also increases synaptogenesis, the formation of new information “pathways” in the brain.
  • Mindfulness and meditation: A combination of meditation and mindfulness, the practice of focusing on the moment without judgment or evaluation, is also often effective in combating stress-related memory loss.

Creative outlets: Creative activities, such as music, painting, and sculpture, can also ease stress and help patients with trauma-related memory loss.

Learn More about Trauma-Focused Therapy at Beachway.

Beachway Therapy Center in Palm Beach County, Florida, specializes in mental health, substance abuse treatment, and dual diagnosis treatment. It offers a variety of treatment programs, including inpatient and outpatient PTSD and trauma treatment. Contact Beachway to learn more.