Trauma is defined as an emotional, psychological response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event or experience. Trauma can cause a significant amount of stress, both long and short-term. Trauma stress can impact different brain parts, such as the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala. Due to traumatic stress, these parts of the brain can experience diminished function, along with a change in shape and volume. These areas of the brain are also associated with memory function. The prefrontal cortex processes the information that we need to remember daily. The hippocampus focuses on recognizing, memorizing facts, spatial memory and compares present experiences with past memories. Fear-based memories are processed by the amygdala, such as when you touch a hot stove and burn yourself. You won’t touch that hot surface again because the amygdala processes and stores that specific memory. Memory loss can be trauma-based and quickly occur when trauma creates stress and negatively affects the brain.
There is a close relationship between occurrences of trauma and memory. Memory loss can be a temporary way for one to cope with trauma. But other memory loss may be permanent and caused by a severe brain injury or distressing psychological trauma. An event can be so traumatic for someone that it causes posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition can be triggered by various events such as accidents, attacks, natural disasters, etc. PTSD can either be acute, chronic and delayed-onset. Acute PTSD symptoms usually end within three months, while chronic PTSD symptoms can continue for more than three months. Delayed-Onset PTSD symptoms don’t present themselves until some time passes after the traumatic experience or event has occurred. People with PTSD may have angry outbursts, feelings of guilt and shame, irrational behavior, and detachment from friends and family. The memory loss associated with PTSD can add even more stress to what someone is already experiencing and intensify the symptoms they are experiencing even more.
There are different types of trauma, and they can cause both temporary or permanent complications.
Physical trauma can significantly affect memory, especially if someone experiences brain damage caused by an injury. A head injury or stroke damages the brain and impairs one’s main memory functions, such as processing and storing information. The length of memory loss depends on how severe the injury was on the brain.
Emotional or Psychological Trauma
This type of trauma can significantly cause a person to lose their memory because memory loss is a defense mechanism and a natural survival skill humans use to protect themselves from enduring psychological damage. Dissociative amnesia can be caused by sexual abuse, violence, and other emotionally traumatic events. When a person has dissociative amnesia, they can cope with their trauma by temporarily forgetting details of an event. Although this type of amnesia temporarily helps a person block out the traumatic event, global amnesia can cause them not to remember who they are for a specific period and become confused and depressed. PTSD can be caused by emotional or psychological trauma and include flashbacks and unwanted thoughts. These repressed memories can be resurfaced any time that an event triggers them and be revisited repeatedly, causing the brain to experience a new trauma each time. Therefore, treatment is necessary to overcome trauma and heal while improving your memory. Over time, EMDR therapy is believed to lessen the impact traumatic memories will have on a person.
What is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This therapy is used to relieve psychological stress through an interactive psychotherapy technique for trauma and PTSD. While the therapist directs a person’s eye movements, they are exposed to traumatic and triggering experiences in brief doses, causing the patient to relive through them. The reason why EMDR therapy is effective is that when your attention is diverted, recalling distressing events is usually less emotionally upsetting and allows you to be exposed to memories without having a strong psychological response. The therapist uses rapid horizontal finger movements while showing the patient various parts of the memory that they want the patient to address. By following the therapist’s fingers, patients can avoid being re-traumatized by the memory and sucked in. Watching these memories during the treatment while allowing patients to maintain a safe distance from them, this reprocessing helps patients shift from negative beliefs associated with their trauma to more adaptive beliefs and positive thoughts.
EMDR therapy benefits people who have PTSD and are dealing with traumatic memories the most. It is believed to be effective for people who struggle with talking about their past experiences. EMDR therapy also is used to treat depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, and addictions.