PTSD Symptoms and Memory Loss

By M. Chris Wolf, PH.D.

PTSD symptoms are a significant cause of memory loss.Most of us are very aware that trauma can cause us considerable anxiety. People who have personally been exposed to a life threatening event or have been confronted with the potential loss of a loved one usually develop acute stress. This acute stress, if it persists over a month, can developed into Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In the United States the lifetime incidence of PTSD sympoms among men is 5% and women is 10%. Thus, women are at greater risk of developing PTSD. Among our service members returning from the recent wars in the Middle East, 14% of veterans currently experience PTSD. 19% of Vietnam veterans have met the criteria for PTSD during their postwar lives. PTSD symptoms and memory loss often go hand-in-hand.

What are the symptoms of PTSD? According to the DSM-IV-TR (the diagnostic manual of mental disorders) they include:

Recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the trauma, including images, thoughts, or perceptions

Recurrent distressing dreams of the event

Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring including flashbacks

Intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues of the event

Physical reactivity upon exposure to internal or external cues of the traumatic event

Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma

Efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma

Inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma

Diminished interest or participation in significant activities and feeling distant from others

  • Unable to have loving feelings
  • No expecting to enjoy a future
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Exaggerated startle response

While the acute stress and shock of trauma often occurs instantly, symptoms of PTSD can develop more slowly over time. The trauma may lay dormant and then emerge when triggered by some other event. This is referred to as “delayed” onset.

PTSD symptoms often persist and can cause significant problems in our marriage, social relationships and of course our occupational life. What is often not known or discussed is the significant impact that PTSD symptoms can have upon our memory functioning.

These problems of memory loss can contribute to increased anxiety and the sense that we are “going crazy.” While the symptoms of memory loss are often debilitating and quite annoying, there is no evidence that they will become permanent. You are not developing dementia.

An area of concern in the military is the overlap of PTSD with TBI. This has been referred to by some as the “signature injury” of the Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) (Warden, 2006). Thus, the shared characteristics of TBI and PTSD have been studied extensively.

Symptoms that overlap the two disorders include the following:

  • Verbal Memory Impairment
  • Attention Deficits
  • Problems in Concentration
  • Working Memory Deficits
  • Impulsivity
  • Mental Confusion
  • Slowed Mental processing of Information
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Deficits in Abstract Thinking
  • Depression and Stress

Memory problems and other problems of thinking can occur with the development of PTSD. It is important to rule out the effects of trauma on memory loss. This form of memory loss associated with trauma is reversible with proper diagnosis and quality treatment.

For more information visit Military TBI

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