Understanding The Relationship Between PTSD And Memory Loss

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that can develop in response to a terrifying and distressing or life-threatening event. The condition affects people differently, but many people with PTSD struggle with memory loss. 

You can learn how to manage memory loss during PTSD with traditional PTSD treatments and other tips that may enhance memory. 

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Researchers are studying thousands of new treatments and you could be a part of finding a cure while accessing the newest treatments for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Why does PTSD trigger memory loss?

After experiencing or witnessing trauma, it’s thought that the brain’s capacity to cope with the memories may become impaired. 

Loss of memory, which is linked to this impairment, is classified as an avoidance or numbing symptom of PTSD associated with the suppression of memories — theoretically acting as a defense mechanism of the brain.

Another possible explanation is that the brain fails to integrate memories related to the senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) and memories connected to the feeling of fear associated with the memory of a specific traumatic event. 

Areas of the brain crucial for memory processing, such as the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala, can be affected by PTSD, as they’re affected by the stress response and may mediate changes in memory. 

Further, PTSD negatively affects sleep, and since sleep is closely linked to memory, PTSD may indirectly contribute to memory loss through this relationship. 

If you struggle with PTSD, you may wonder, “is PTSD memory loss permanent?” Memory loss from PTSD can be short-term and may improve with treatment. However, some studies report that people with PTSD have almost double the risk of developing dementia, a neurological condition that permanently impairs cognition and causes memory loss.¹

What types of memory loss are associated with PTSD?

Memory disturbances are recognized as part of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD and are common among people with the condition. 

Some people struggle with memory loss surrounding the traumatic event itself. Others have difficulty forming new memories after the event.

Types of memory loss associated with PTSD include:

Voluntary recall of the traumatic event

Some people with PTSD may not be able to recall details surrounding the traumatic event. Memories may be disorganized and fragmented, rendering the person incapable of recalling specifics about the experience, such as the order in which subsequent events occurred. 

Memory in everyday life

Some people with PTSD have trouble with their memory in everyday life, including autobiographical memory — they have difficulty recalling things they’ve personally said, done, or experienced. Others may struggle with spatial memory, the ability to recall where things are located and how the locations of different objects relate to each other. 

One study of combat veterans with PTSD found they experienced more severe memory issues more often than their non-combat counterparts. Likewise, combat veterans had less effective mnemonic use — that is, their memory retention and retrieval techniques were less effective.²

Verbal declarative memory

Declarative memory is a type of long-term memory involved in the processing and recollection of facts and events. Studies on people with PTSD from combat and child abuse found that people with PTSD linked to those types of trauma may have dysfunction in their verbal declarative memory.³

Dissociative amnesia

Dissociative amnesia involves memory loss, particularly surrounding important information about one’s life. People with PTSD may deal with dissociative amnesia and may experience gaps in memory.

How to deal with memory loss linked to PTSD

If you’re struggling with PTSD memory loss, conventional PTSD treatments, including therapy and medications, may help. But, beyond that, you can take steps at home to improve your condition. 

PTSD treatments

Although more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of PTSD treatments for managing memory loss in particular, treatments can reduce PTSD re-experiencing symptoms, so they may help with memory. 

A typical PTSD treatment plan may include:

Cognitive behavior therapy

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) focuses on the connections between thoughts, feelings, and behavior and how a person can modify these connections to improve overall functioning. CBT improves PTSD symptoms and may improve autobiographical memory performance in people with PTSD. 

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic technique that can help people effectively process memories by activating mechanisms in the brain that help them do so. EMDR may improve memory retrieval, trigger memory reconsolidation, and recognition of true information. 

Medications

Little evidence exists on the effectiveness of different PTSD medications for improving memory. 

Paroxetine (sold under the brand name Paxil and others) is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that may improve verbal declarative memory and increase the volume of the hippocampus when it’s reduced in PTSD.⁴

Lifestyle changes

While medication and therapy are effective for treating PTSD, supplementing with healthy lifestyle habits can help further improve wellness.

Prioritizing sleep

People with PTSD often struggle with sleep disturbances. Because of its essential role in memory processing, inadequate sleep can contribute to memory issues. 

Therapy and medication can improve sleep quality in people with PTSD, but developing good sleep hygiene is also essential. 

Good sleep hygiene can involve:

  • Maintaining a regular and relaxing sleep routine

  • Avoiding large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bed

  • Removing electronic devices from your bedroom and not using them 30 minutes before going to bed

  • Keeping your bedroom quiet, dark, relaxing, and cool

  • Exercising during the day, but not too close to bedtime

  • Only using your bed for sleep 

Exercising regularly

Exercise can improve thinking, learning, and overall mental health. Experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly to enhance physical and psychological health. 

Although more studies are needed, researchers believe aerobic exercise may effectively increase cognitive function in people with PTSD. Aerobic exercise also improves episodic memory (recall of everyday events) and executive function (working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control), often impaired in people with PTSD.⁵

Practicing mindfulness and meditation

Meditation employs specialized techniques to help individuals focus their minds on the present environment. The practice has been associated with improvements in working memory and long-term memory. 

Mindfulness, a technique used in meditation, may also improve working memory, episodic memory, and recognition memory performance. However, more research is needed to establish definitive connections.

Eating a healthy diet

Although not heavily studied in the context of PTSD, it’s well-known that diet is associated with memory and cognitive function.⁶

A healthy diet may include:

  • Fruits and vegetables, especially berries, kale, spinach, and broccoli

  • Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, and supplements

  • Whole grains

  • Protein-rich foods, such as poultry, fish, beans, and legumes

  • Low alcohol consumption

Other techniques for managing memory loss

While you work toward improving your memory issues, there are steps you can take to minimize the effects memory loss has on your daily life, including:

  • Writing things down, such as making to-do lists and making notes of important tasks

  • Learning a new skill that challenges the brain and keeps it engaged (apps, books, and puzzles can help)

  • Maintaining a consistent daily routine

  • Reducing stress and seeking help if necessary

When to see a doctor

If you’ve been experiencing distressing symptoms that affect your life and relationships and persist for more than a month after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, you may have PTSD, and you should schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider.

Getting professional help for PTSD is an essential step in regaining control and improving wellness.

The lowdown

Regardless of its cause, memory loss can be worrisome and disruptive. Fortunately, numerous established, proven PTSD treatment options exist. While there are no PTSD treatments specifically aimed at improving memory, treating the condition leads to improvements in symptoms. Alongside medications and therapy, healthy lifestyle habits can boost overall wellness in people with PTSD.

  1. Post-traumatic stress disorder and risk of dementia among U.S. veterans (2010)

  2. PTSD is associated with impaired event processing and memory for everyday events (2022)

  3. Traumatic stress: effects on the brain (2006)

  4. Long-term treatment with paroxetine increases verbal declarative memory and hippocampal volume in posttraumatic stress disorder (2011)

  5. Exercise intervention in PTSD: A narrative review and rationale for implementation (2019)

  6. Dietary patterns in middle age: effects on concurrent neurocognition and risk of age-related cognitive decline (2022)

Other sources:

Curious about clinical trials for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Researchers are studying thousands of new treatments and you could be a part of finding a cure while accessing the newest treatments for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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