Can Trauma Cause Memory Loss?

memory loss

Traumatic events can have many ramifications. Many studies have found that people can struggle to recall traumatic events or may remember them in disorganised ways. However, memories can be reorganised, reprocessed, and, in some cases, recovered.

Memory Loss and Trauma

Memory loss is not a common symptom of trauma, but it can happen. Traumatic events can be extremely overwhelming, and the brain and body may not know how to cope. Therefore, it may repress or pause painful memories of traumatic experiences to protect itself, preventing people from continuously reliving the event.

One study from 2015 found that specific pathways in the brain only activate during a fear response. Fear-inducing events were found to affect the cell receptors for GABA, which causes a new memory network to be created rather than being absorbed by the traditional memory pathways. The memories are then not processed normally and may even be entirely forgotten until the same receptors become active again.[1]

However, not all traumatic events cause memory loss. Memory loss is incredibly complex, and there are several different types, including:

  • Trauma denial – research suggests that denial can potentially block out unwanted, painful memories. This does not necessarily mean that memories are gone or incomplete, but that being in denial helps people undermine their memories and protect themselves from the painful reality of what happened.[2]
  • Dissociative amnesia – dissociative amnesia is characterised by the inability to recall memories because of dissociation, in which people feel detached from reality and themselves. Dissociation can occur due to traumatic events and can coexist with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Trauma can affect memory in many ways. There are several types of memory, each of which can be impacted by traumatic stress:

  • Semantic memory – this type of memory is related to general knowledge. Trauma can lead people to struggle to link events and thoughts together to create a memory.
  • Emotional memory – related to the feelings that people experience during an event, traumatic stress can cause heightened fear and anxiety responses from unrelated memories and experiences.
  • Episodic memory – the autobiographical memory of the event; this can become fragmented after a traumatic event.
  • Procedural memory – procedural memory helps people to perform tasks without conscious thought. However, traumatic events can cause it to change due to heightened fear and anticipation.

The effects of memory loss can be incredibly damaging. It can affect people’s work, decreasing their performance, self-esteem and self-confidence. Trauma, stress, and memory issues can also physically damage the brain.

Memory Loss and the Brain

Without experiencing traumatic events, memories are formed in three stages:

  1. Acquisition – sensory experiences and emotions are processed by the amygdala to become a memory.
  2. Consolidation – the hippocampus consolidates the experiences and sends the information to the correct parts of the brain.
  3. Retrieval – the prefrontal cortex allows people to retrieve the memories when needed.

However, memories are stored and formed differently during a stressful or traumatic event. The brain signals the body to fight, run, or freeze and releases corticosteroids into the blood to help it prepare. While this happens, the amygdala – which works as the brain’s alarm system – inhibits the prefrontal cortex as it functions slower than it does. However, this affects the creation and retrieval of memories surrounding the traumatic event. Ongoing trauma, such as childhood abuse, can cause long-term problems with memory.

Trauma can also physically change people’s brains, influencing memory loss and distortion. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that has a major role in learning and memory and is especially sensitive to stress. Stress causes specific adrenal hormones to be secreted in the brain, and sustained release of these hormones can cause neural degeneration in the brain, especially in the hippocampus.

Treatment and Recovery

It is possible to heal from trauma and its many symptoms, including memory loss. There are several steps you can take to cope with memory loss and strengthen your memory, such as:

  • Sleep well – sleep has many benefits for mental health and memory, but many people struggling with trauma can find it challenging to sleep well. Poor sleep can worsen people’s memory and make it difficult to stay focused throughout the day. Having a regular bedtime, keeping phones out of the bedroom and practising breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques can help people improve their sleep.
  • Journal – journaling can help with memory loss, providing a space for people to vent their emotions and relieve feelings of depression and anxiety. It can also improve sleep, which can, in turn, improve memory.[3]
  • Be mindful – mindfulness is the act of being in the present moment. When people struggle with their memory, it can be challenging to be present, and it can be incredibly worrying to be unable to remember certain events. Mindfulness meditation, which involves sitting and paying attention to the breath and body, can increase attention span and self-awareness and improve emotional regulation.[4]
  • Seek treatment – trauma is challenging to deal with alone and can have many more effects outside of memory loss. Seeking professional treatment can help people get to the root of the event that may have caused their memory loss and treat other trauma symptoms they may be experiencing.

Memory loss is not a common symptom of trauma, but it can happen. It can make healing incredibly difficult for some people, as they may struggle to recall the events affecting them. Specialised trauma treatment can support those who need it the most and help them recover from many types of trauma.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] Jovasevic V, Corcoran KA, Leaderbrand K, Yamawaki N, Guedea AL, Chen HJ, Shepherd GM, Radulovic J. GABAergic mechanisms regulated by miR-33 encode state-dependent fear. Nat Neurosci. 2015 Sep;18(9):1265-71. doi: 10.1038/nn.4084. Epub 2015 Aug 17. PMID: 26280760; PMCID: PMC4880671.

[2] Otgaar H, Romeo T, Ramakers N, Howe ML. Forgetting having denied: The “amnesic” consequences of denial. Mem Cognit. 2018 May;46(4):520-529. doi: 10.3758/s13421-017-0781-5. PMID: 29264864; PMCID: PMC5940707.

[3] Smyth J, Johnson J, Auer B, Lehman E, Talamo G, Sciamanna C. Online positive affect journaling in the improvement of mental distress and well-being in general medical patients with elevated anxiety symptoms: A preliminary randomized controlled trial. JMIR Ment Health. 2018;5(4):e11290. doi:10.2196/11290

[4] Tang Y, Holzel B. Posner M. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015;16(4):213-225. doi:10.1038/nrn3916

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