How Trauma Impacts Your Memory and How to Heal

Have you ever noticed that when you go through a stressful experience, it can be hard to concentrate or remember things? Some people experience brain fog, while others struggle with making and forming new memories.  

If you’ve been through this, you’re not alone. When you go through trauma or a stressor, it can be hard to remember daily tasks and you may have trouble learning new things. This can be a short-term symptom that passes when the trauma subsides, or it can become chronic. Some people who experience trauma can go on to develop PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD can greatly impact your ability to live your life.

Memory loss or changes in memory may not always be what we associate with trauma, but it is a pervasive symptom. Research shows that PTSD affects the brain and memory, making it difficult to process and recall information. Understanding how trauma can impact your memory can help you cope with trauma and move towards healing.

Memory of the Trauma

Memory loss is a survival skill, and it can serve as a defense mechanism that can protect us from remembering negative memories. This is why it is difficult for some people to remember traumatic events. Assault survivors, for instance, may have trouble recalling the details of the experience.

For others, the events are remembered in harrowing detail. Many people diagnosed with PTSD can have flashbacks, where they experience the trauma over and over again. But trauma can also impact the area in the brain that governs our memory, and this can make it hard to process new memories.

Impact on the Hippocampus

When you experience a trauma, your amygdala becomes over-activated and releases stress hormones that disrupt other areas of the brain. The amygdala is the fear center of the brain and this is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response.

When the amygdala is over-firing, other areas in your brain become under-active, like the hippocampus. The hippocampus is primarily responsible for our ability to store and retrieve memories. Researchers have looked at people who have experienced PTSD and they have found that people with chronic PTSD have smaller hippocampi. With a smaller hippocampus, it can create cognitive and other memory problems.

When you store traumatic memories, you often store negative thoughts and emotions along with them. So, when you think about a difficult memory from the past, you may feel the emotions, like fear or anger, as well. If you are experiencing this repeatedly, the stress hormones released can impact your brain and other parts of your body.

Healing from Trauma

EMDR therapy can help because it works on how memories are stored in the brain. EMDR can help you to remember difficult experiences from the past but without as much negative emotion. And this helps to reduce the impact of PTSD on the brain. Our brains are neuroplastic and can change at any age. With your amygdala firing less, your hippocampus can recover and start to function normally again.

During this challenging time, many people are experiencing higher levels of stress. Seeking help from a trained therapist can improve your quality of life. At DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy, we are experienced in providing EMDR therapy. Contact us for a free consultation to learn more about EMDR therapy.

Annie Miller is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in the Washington DC area. Annie specializes in working with insomnia (CBT-i)trauma (EMDR)teen mental healthanxiety disorders, and chronic pain. Interested in learning more about EMDR Therapy? Check out DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy’s EMDR Therapy Page.

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