Ways That Trauma Affects Memory

Your memory can be categorized into a few different functions and trauma can affect these functions in several different ways. This is because your memory is related to several different areas in your brain that serve different purposes. Trauma can affect your memory in significant ways that impact trauma recovery.

There are 4 different kinds of memory, each associated with different parts of your brain, and each affected slightly differently after trauma. The combination of trauma’s effects on the different areas of the brain associated with memory accounts for why survivors of trauma often have difficult remembering specific details of the trauma, or why they may have confusion about the order of events that happened around the time of the trauma.

Semantic Memory and Trauma

This kind of memory has to do with remembering general knowledge, such as knowing who the president is, knowing what an orange is, or knowing the difference between a truck and a car.

Semantic memory is associated with the temporal lobe and the inferior parietal cortex in the brain. Information from different parts of the brain, such as words, sounds, or images combine to form semantic memories. When trauma occurs, it can prevent the brain from combining this information correctly to form semantic memories.

This area of memory is particularly damaging for children exposed to trauma, because their brains are still in the growth and development phase and so trauma can have a devastating effect. Children exposed to trauma can literally have their brains re-wired to stay in survival mode, which can affect them when it comes to behavior and learning for years.

Episodic Memory and Trauma 

Episodic memory has to do with how you remember specific events, including traumatic memories.  This can include memories such specific words or actions that occurred during a traumatic assault, memories of the physical or emotional pain you experienced, or how scared you felt before, during, and after a traumatic event.

The hippocampus in the brain is the area associated with episodic memory and is involved in creating and recalling episodic memories. When a trauma occurs, episodic memory can become fragmented and the sequences of events can get jumbled up in your brain. You can think of it like your memories being in a file cabinet. They might be all in order before a significant traumatic event happens, but trauma is like someone opened up the file cabinet and threw all the files on the floor and mixed them up.

These episodic memories can become confused, and trauma survivors might even begin to doubt themselves when their memory doesn’t line up with certain facts such as the timeline of when the trauma happened or what happened shortly before or after the incident.

The impact of trauma on episodic memory is especially difficult when the trauma involved a crime and there is law enforcement involved.  Law enforcement is always looking to sort out the facts and verify timelines when they are doing an investigation.  When a trauma survivor’s memory doesn’t completely align with discoverable facts, law enforcement might question their version of events. This can leave survivors feeling self-doubt and sometimes re-traumatized by the law enforcement process.

Procedural Memory and Trauma

Procedural memory has to do with retaining memory about how to do things, such as remembering how to ride a bike or drive a car, or remembering the code for a gate or security system.

The striatum is the area of the brain associated with procedural memory. When trauma impacts this area of the brain, it can change patterns that were previously engrained in your brain. For example, you might find that you forget to do things that you normally do by habit, or you might forget certain details that you need to remember.

Trauma can even cause you to unconsciously tense up your muscles because you have been thrust into survival mode by the traumatic event, and this can cause pain to build up over time. Tension can become a habit that forms because you always feel on edge after a trauma. Particularly for people who have held onto trauma for many years and haven’t been able to heal from it, this physical pain can stay stuck in your body and manifest as aches, pain, inflammation, and muscle tension.

Emotional Memory and Trauma

Emotional memory has to do with the emotional response you get from triggers, such as feeling scared or anxious when you drive past the location where a traumatic incident happened. You could also experience emotional memories when you have to face a person who abused or assaulted you.

The amygdala is associated with these emotional memories surrounding traumatic experiences. Sometimes, a trigger can cause an onset of emotional memories to surface, and you may feel like you are re-living the event in your mind. This can cause significant emotional distress, fear that continues to re-surfaces, and recurring intrusive thoughts about the traumatic experience.

Emotional memories in response to triggers affect almost everyone who has experienced a traumatic event in their life. Coping with triggers is an integral part of trauma recovery and is one of the earliest challenges that survivors face after a traumatic event or situation. Emotional memories can last a lifetime and can significantly affect a survivor’s mental health and overall wellbeing.

Integrating Traumatic Memories in Trauma Recovery

All of these effects of trauma on the brain means that trauma recovery is about more than just trying to figure out how to move past the trauma. Trauma survivors need support to understand what is happening inside their minds so that they know what is happening. It’s hard for survivors to feel like they can move on with their lives when they face triggers all around them that constantly bring them back to the traumatic event.

Trauma survivors may feel like they are going crazy because of all of these responses going on in the brain.  The brain is a highly sensitive and complicated organ, and it functions to keep every area of your body alive. That means that when it senses danger, it’s going to react in whatever way is necessary to keep you alive.

Your brain wants you to react to every trigger because it is protecting you from potential danger that would be traumatic again for you. This causes a lot of distress, because you might feel like you’re on high alert even when you don’t want to be. Learning to cope with and rationalize what is going on in your brain may take practice and support.

When it comes to memory, remember to think about the file cabinet and how much disarray has happened to cause your memories to be foggy or disorganized.  You can try to put things back in order bit by bit, which might help you to integrate more of your memories and gain a fuller picture of what happened so that you can shape your own understanding about your experiences.

However, try to be kind to yourself by not furthering self-doubt when your memories are fuzzy and unclear. You may not remember every detail about the trauma that happened to you, but you know how your experiences made you feel, and that is even more important. Processing the feelings that you had before, during, and after a trauma is just as important, if not more so, than the details of the event itself.

Trauma recovery can be difficult because it’s never fun to have to sort through all your emotions and talk about difficult experiences. Working with an experienced trauma recovery specialist and gathering support from caring loved ones are the most important steps in recovering from trauma, regardless of the specifics of the trauma that you have experienced.

Source: Rachel Mullins

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