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The Effects of PTSD-Related Memory Loss

author image Justin Forman
Justin Forman has been writing academically for several years. He was published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease as part of a research team exploring medical utilization. He holds a master's degree in psychology and is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on father longing.
The Effects of PTSD-Related Memory Loss
MRI images of the brain. Photo Credit Bunyos/iStock/Getty Images


Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that arises when a person is subjected to an overwhelming experience of trauma. "The American Psychiatric Association in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV states that PTSD is an "anxiety disorder" that results from experiencing or being witness to threatened or actual loss of life or severe physical injury." PTSD is characterized by the person's response to the trauma, including avoiding similar situations and having persistent thoughts and memories related to the trauma. PTSD also causes sufferers to experience both long- and short-term memory loss.

Mental Health Effects

According to an article by J. Douglas Bremner in 2000, "Combat veterans were found to have an 8% reduction in hippocampal volume which is associated with short-term memory loss." The hippocampus is a part of the brain that helps to store memories. As a result of the lowered hippocampus functioning, PTSD sufferers experience flashbacks of the event as if they were still occurring in the present moment. This contributes to constant feelings of immediate danger and heightened anxiety instead of having a buffer of time and space, which would be available if the memory were properly stored. Another effect is that emotional content is not stored with memories, which can lead to difficulties processing emotions, especially difficult emotions.

Social Effects

PTSD sufferers often have difficulty remembering small details of their lives. One Vietnam veteran mentioned in Wellness Directory of Minnesota says of a PTSD reaction to an anniversary of a trauma, "I’d forgotten my own phone number, and when prompted for my Military Signature, I had to ask, 'What’s that?'" This kind of memory loss makes it difficult for people to complete even routine tasks like mailing letters or getting to appointments.

Vocational Effects

Finding and keeping a job is often very difficult for persons with PTSD. According to Bremner, "Hippocampal damage can reduce capacity for learning due to the impact of stress on neural regeneration in the hippocampus." In addition to having difficulties remembering the time and place of an appointment, there is added difficulty in learning new tasks required by the employer. One veteran mentioned in the Wellness Directory of Minnesota states of the ability of a PTSD sufferer to focus on a task, "We often spend more time on the periphery of a problem than on the problem itself. This is one reason many of us are unemployable." Any form of schooling or vocational training presents similar problems, making it difficult to advance in career or provide significant income contributions to the family.

Another kind of "memory loss" has to do with aphasia, or the loss of the ability to speak and understand language. According to Louis Cozolino, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, there is an "inhibitory effect on Broca's area [that] will impair the encoding of conscious memory for traumatic events at the time they occur." A person might know which word he is trying to say but end up saying a completely different word. Loss of effective communication damages chances for a person with PTSD to be able to conduct a successful interview or pass classes.

Relationship Effects

Impairment of communication is drastic in relationships, especially intimate relationships. The inability to hold down a job because of memory problems contributes to stress within live-in relationships and possible feelings of shame in the person with PTSD. Memory loss can also include memories of an intimate other as one Vietnam veteran mentioned in the Wellness Directory of Minnesota reports, "While there, I’d forgotten I’d had a fiancée, the woman who a month earlier, I had intended on marrying. I’d forgotten nearly everything associated with her."

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