- What is emotional trauma
- Types of memory loss
- Risk factors
- How to fix
- Repressed memory controversy
Our minds store a lot of information and memories. What happens if some of those memories suddenly disappear? This might sound like something out of a movie, but it’s actually a real issue for some people who’ve been through emotionally traumatic experiences.
While physical trauma like a traumatic brain injury can cause memory loss through physical brain damage, emotional trauma can also lead to memory loss, even when there’s no severe brain injury or physical wounds.
What is emotional trauma
Trauma is any distressing experience that causes intense psychological distress in a person. It can be caused by discrete occurrences, like natural disasters and car accidents. It can also come from chronic or repetitive events such as war or ongoing child abuse. Emotional trauma specifically refers to trauma that negatively impacts a person’s emotional state and well-being. It tends to be caused by disturbing experiences that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope.
Psychological trauma is not just going through hard times or having a commonplace misfortune. Traumatic situations usually involve serious threats to one’s life or physical safety or close encounters with violence and death.1 But emotional trauma can also result from non-violent events, such as childhood neglect or chronic verbal abuse.2
The types of trauma that can cause psychological damage include
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Medical neglect
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Car accidents
- Losing a parent
- Witnessing domestic violence
- Community violence
- Forced parental separation
- Dysfunctional family
- Marital discord
- Parental alienation
- Abandoned by parents (orphanage)
Types of memory loss caused by emotional trauma
Emotional trauma can result in different types of memory loss.
More commonly known as dissociative amnesia, traumatic amnesia is the inability to consciously recall certain events or experiences in the absence of physical damage to brain structures.
The term dissociative was originally used to call this type of memory loss. It was believed that dissociation was the primary cause since dissociative disorder often occurs after one has experienced trauma.
Most dissociative amnesias are retrograde. People lose access to certain aspects of memory from their past and have difficulty recalling important details about their lives, usually associated with the traumatic events.
The existence of dissociative amnesia is controversial because some authorities suggest it’s common; others say it’s not supported by empirical evidence.3
Childhood autobiographical memory loss (CAML)
Childhood autobiographical memory loss is the inability to recall or access memories from certain times in one’s early life. This type of memory loss is associated with childhood abuse, especially child sexual abuse.
While dissociative amnesia typically results in loss of memory regarding the traumatic event, individuals with CAML often experience a loss of memory spanning entire years of their early lives.
This kind of long-term memory loss can be likened to a ‘black hole’ in one’s memory, where life’s memories are unreachable for the person.4
Risk factors of memory loss due to emotional trauma
Earlier age of trauma onset
The younger a person was when they first experienced trauma, the more likely they were to have significant gaps in their childhood memories.5
People with dissociative amnesia of the abuse are 3.8 times more likely to experience CAML as well. Amnesia for the event may spread to generalized memory impairment.
Higher levels of dissociation are predictive of both dissociative memory loss and CAML. It could be because dissociation impairs encoding and memory consolidation.
Longer duration of abuse
Longer duration of sexual abuse is a risk factor of memory loss. More prolonged trauma may cause more severe disruption in memory.
Feelings of betrayal
Increased feelings of betrayal by the perpetrator were linked to higher likelihood of memory loss. Betrayal trauma theory suggests betrayal can motivate forgetting. Impaired memory is more likely to occur the closer the victim is to the perpetrator.6
How emotional trauma causes memory loss
The exact mechanisms and impacts of emotional trauma on memory loss are not yet fully understood. However, researchers have made notable advancements in this field by developing hypotheses, theories, and supporting them with research evidence.
Research indicates that the stress response in our bodies may disrupt memory function. Severe stress experienced in emotional trauma can trigger the fight-or-flight reaction activating the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, in the brain.
Studies show that prolonged exposure to excessive levels of cortisol can lead to a smaller hippocampus, which is a brain structure responsible for forming declarative or explicit memory.
A reduction in the hippocampal volume may result in declarative memory deficits by impairing the encoding and consolidation of memories. This dysfunction will result in difficulty organizing and retrieving memories.7
Several theories and hypotheses have been proposed to explain the memory loss after experiencing emotional trauma.
Dissociation disrupting normal memory formation: Traumatic experiences can lead to dissociation, a psychological process where individuals detach from their thoughts, feelings, and frightening memories as a defense mechanism8. Some researchers believe that dissociation can disrupt the normal formation of trauma memories causing fragmentation. Others believe that dissociation can cause memory repression and the repressed memory can be retrieved later on in life.9
Activation of the amygdala: When a brain region called the amygdala is moderately active, it boosts the functioning of the hippocampus. However, at extreme levels of emotional intensity, the amygdala inhibits hippocampal function, thus leading to impairments in the consolidation of memories.10
Betrayal trauma theory: This theory suggests that victims who have been betrayed by trusted individuals or someone they depend on for survival, such as caretakers, may not be able to remember certain aspects, or even the entirety, of their traumatic experiences. Forgetting or blocking out these painful memories is an adaptive response, designed to help the individual cope with the immense stress and potential danger in trauma scenarios.11
How to fix emotional memory loss
Some research has indicated that dissociative amnesia only causes temporary memory loss. Individuals with trauma exposure may eventually regain forgotten memories. However, it remains uncertain whether this is also possible for memories lost as a result of Childhood Amnesia Memory Loss (CAML).
Currently, there are no established treatments specifically targeting memory loss, and the scientific community has not agreed upon a comprehensive recovery plan for it.
Despite this, memory loss is associated with the development of a psychiatric disorder called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Trauma treatments are available to alleviate this medical condition to help you improve the quality of life.
Seek help from mental health professionals with expertise in treating adverse health issues caused by traumatic experiences. They might include psychologists, psychiatrists, or therapists who have specific training and experience in trauma-focused therapies.
They can help you create a plan to deal with the impacts of childhood trauma. They can also teach you techniques to handle everyday life challenges caused by anterograde memory difficulties, which is a problem with making new memories.
Also See: How to Heal from Childhood Trauma
Be cautious about claims suggesting they can help retrieve lost memories. Oftentimes, these methods don’t have substantial support by scientific evidence, and their efficacy is unproven. These methods may carry potential side effects that might not have been thoroughly studied and might pose unknown risks to trauma patients.
Before starting any treatment, it’s important to fully understand what it involves. An experienced and qualified mental health professional will explain the treatment plan to you, discussing the steps, potential benefits, and any possible side effects or risks. They should also answer any questions you may have and make sure you are comfortable and ready to proceed.
Repressed memory controversy
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was an increase in reports of adults recovering repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, often during therapy. This led to a controversy about whether repressed memories are real or false memories.
Critics argue that repressed memories are inaccurate memories unintentionally created through suggestion by therapists or others.
Supporters believe repressed memories are real.
Patients with memory loss repress these traumatic memories as a protective mechanism. Recovered memories may provide validation and help survivors of childhood trauma heal.
Though less prominent today, the debate around traumatic memory loss from childhood trauma continues within psychology and law fields. There is still no scientific consensus on the validity of repressed memories.12
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