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Can PTSD Cause Memory Loss?

Can PTSD Cause Memory Loss?

Can PTSD Cause Memory Loss?

Published: February 7, 2023

Most of us have heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. However, mistakenly, many believe that a PTSD diagnosis is limited to combat veterans, first responders, and others who regularly face traumatic, life-endangering events.

As researchers understood this condition better, they recognized a link between posttraumatic stress disorder and memory loss. Trauma survivors with a PTSD diagnosis report multiple issues with memory impairment, including difficulties with short-term memory, traumatic memories, memory distortion, and a variety of other memory problems.

Many people ask, can posttraumatic stress disorder cause memory loss? The evidence suggests that, yes, memory loss and PTSD are intimately connected. There is growing evidence of a connection between PTSD and dementia, too. So it is vital that we are able to recognize PTSD symptoms and get evidence based treatment as quickly as possible.

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

When we witness or experience a traumatic incident, there is a risk of developing Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While we often associate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with military combat, the events may be less dramatic, yet equally as impactful to your mental health, such as a natural disaster, car accident, physical or sexual assault, or any other situation that poses a threat to a person's physical or emotional well-being.

Even a single traumatic event can lead to the development of posttraumatic stress symptoms. If an event is perceived to be life-threatening by the person who experiences it, there is a substantial risk factor of developing traumatic memories and posttraumatic stress disorder.

In fact, research shows that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is experienced by 6.8% of US adults. The types of events that can lead to developing PTSD and its attendant memory impairments include:

  • A serious accident
  • Experiencing sexual or physical assault
  • Domestic or childhood abuse
  • Witnessing or being exposed to (even remotely) traumatic events at work
  • Suffering from a serious health issue or needing emergency medical treatment
  • Traumatic experiences during childbirth, including, but not limited to, the loss of a baby
  • The death of a loved one
  • Experiences of conflict and war
  • Surviving torture

Additional Risk Factors for Developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Trauma survivors who have previously suffered from anxiety or depression, as well as people receiving limited support from friends and family, are more at risk of developing PTSD symptoms.

Genetics may be a risk factor too. It is thought that if a parent suffers from a mental illness, their children have a higher chance of experiencing PTSD issues.

PTSD Symptoms

Hyperarousal is a significant symptom of PTSD. A sufferer's body and senses abruptly enter a heightened state of alertness. Frequently, this occurs when they think about the traumatic incident that triggered the onset of PTSD. Their bodies react as if the danger existed in the present moment.

Other PTSD symptoms include:

  • Adverse physical responses to day-to-day events that remind you of a past traumatic incident.
  • Being jumpy and quick to startle
  • Experiencing a sense of distance or detachment from other people
  • Feeling emotionally numb or limited in your feelings
  • Upsetting and repeated thoughts about a past traumatic event
  • Dreaming recurrently about a traumatic event
  • A feeling of reliving a traumatic event
  • A sense of vigilance and a feeling that bad things will happen
  • A sense that your future is limited or shortened
  • Memory gaps that prevent you from recalling important aspects of a past traumatic event
  • Avoiding situations or activities that might cause you to remember a traumatic incident
  • Losing interest in activities you previously enjoyed or considered important
  • Experiencing fear or panic when exposed to events that remind you of a past traumatic event
  • Avoiding feelings and thoughts that you associate with past trauma

Why does PTSD Occur?

The exact causes of PTSD are the subject of research. It's not completely clear why some people develop PTSD. At present, medical professionals believe there are a number of explanations.

PTSD as a Mechanism for Survival

It is theorized that the symptoms of PTSD are an instinctive response designed to help people survive any future experiences of trauma. However, the response is too powerful, and while it may be intended to help a survivor, it is too overwhelming and prevents a sufferer from processing the past traumatic experience.

According to this theory, PTSD flashbacks are intended to force a trauma survivor to think about the past event and thus be better prepared should it happen again. Similarly, the feelings of vigilance and of anticipating danger may develop to help a survivor react quickly in another dangerous situation.

PTSD and Raised Levels of Adrenaline

Medical professionals have noted abnormal levels of stress hormones in PTSD sufferers. Our bodies produce adrenaline and other stress hormones as a natural response to danger. It is part of the fight or flight reaction, and it helps us deal with pain and dulls our senses.

In PTSD sufferers, this high level of fight or flight stress hormones continues even after the danger has passed. This may be why some people with PTSD experience a numbing of their emotions or, conversely, periods of hyperarousal.

PTSD and Changes in Brain Regions

Brain scans of people with PTSD indicate that brain regions associated with emotional processing appear different. The hippocampus, a brain region associated with emotion and memory, has been shown to be smaller in size in those with posttraumatic stress disorder.

It is theorized that these changes in a brain affected by PTSD are responsible for the anxiety, fear, flashbacks, memory distortion, and other memory problems experienced by PTSD sufferers.

As the hippocampus is affected, the proper processing of nightmares and flashbacks may be inhibited. As a consequence, anxiety and stress induced by these experiences do not lessen over time.

Treatment is therefore required to help the brain properly process these memories.

How Can PTSD Cause Memory Loss?

Studies show that memory loss and memory impairments are central to the development and persistence of PTSD symptoms in trauma survivors. Memory disturbances related to the trauma itself are heavily impacted and cause vivid, involuntary flashbacks of the event. However, typically these memories are fragmented and disorganized.

The brain's ability for immediate recall, memory functioning, working memory, and cognitive performance, amongst other PTSD-related deficits, are all compromised in clinically meaningful ways.

Furthermore, people affected by posttraumatic stress disorder frequently report memory issues in everyday life, including forgetting important things, reduced memory ability, and less mnemonic usage. These memory problems are consistent with evidence that memory deficits are linked to PTSD symptom severity.

These short-term memory deficits negatively impact everyday social and work-related tasks and are exacerbated by periods of heightened symptoms, like flashbacks. Reminders of traumatic events provoke distressing psychological and physiological responses.

PTSD symptoms are related to the maladaptive memory functions, encoding, storage, and retrieval of trauma memories. PTSD symptom severity is related to the degree of memory impairment and event processing because states of hypervigilance distract people with PTSD from events in the present moment and draw their attention toward the past.

PTSD affects a sufferer’s ability to determine which stimuli are most relevant to the present moment and to make reasonable predictions about what will happen next, as well as impairing their brain’s memory performance and ability to update memories.

How is PTSD Treated?

How is PTSD Treated?

Posttraumatic stress disorder is treated with a combination of medicine and psychotherapy. It is always best to seek help quickly, but PTSD can be treated successfully even years after the event or events that precipitated its development.

During psychotherapy (talk therapy), you’ll be encouraged to discuss your feelings about a traumatic incident. This can be challenging, but with the support of a qualified mental health professional, it is an effective way of treating PTSD.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you to manage your memory loss and other PTSD symptoms by changing the way you act and think.  A trauma-focused CBT approach will use a number of evidence-based psychological techniques to help you process the traumatizing event and identify any beliefs you have about it that might be detrimental or unrealistic (like underserved guilt or irrational fears the event will reoccur).

A qualified therapist using evidence based techniques can help you with coping mechanisms for any distress you have been experiencing.

Antidepressants, typically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), might be used in combination with your talk therapy, especially if there's any possibility you might be exposed to additional trauma, or you have a co-occurring mental health diagnosis such as depression.

Addressing Your PTSD at GIA Miami

At GIA Miami, a leading Miami Florida based treatment clinic, we can help address your post traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

At our luxurious, peaceful, and well-equipped treatment center, our team of experts and experienced professionals will assess your diagnostic needs and develop a comprehensive plan to address them.

We start with a combination of scientifically and clinically validated evaluations to help us fully understand the mental health and related challenges you are facing. We know that each of us is unique, and your personal experience of trauma deserves an equally unique response, so we tailor your therapeutic program to your bespoke, individual needs.

Your treatment will include a combination of effective, evidence-based therapies, and our compassionate, understanding team of well-being professionals will be with you every step of the way on your road to improved health and wellbeing.

We use traditional tried and true evidence based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, as well as pioneering approaches including transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), to help you on your path to improved wellness of mind and body.

Contact us today to discover more about how our individualized and highly effective treatment plan for PTSD can help you.

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