Questions & Answers with Joyce Boaz & Dr. Frank Ochberg

Read “Survivor Psalm” by Frank Ochberg

PTSD Symptoms: Memory Loss.

Q: Dear Frank, This question is from a female veteran writing a senior seminar paper on PTSD and memory loss.

Hello, I was hoping you might be able to answer a few questions about the physiology of PTSD and memory loss? I have much research but yet I’m not satisfied with the thesis and argument. Any suggestions? I am also a veteran who was diagnosed back in 2001…I had a traumatic event happen in 1976 but no memory until 2001 – nothing until up it came and then all hell broke loose! I couldn’t stop it. I’m much better now thank God! So, I would really like to target why things need to be looked at closely with PTSD due to what happens in the brain during the terror event.

A: Dear Joyce, The problem with PTSD is usually the opposite of memory loss. Memory is all too vivid. In fact, some memory seems to have a different pattern with PTSD, showing up in brain scans as closely linked to the “fight-flight” centers of the brain. Certain shocking events are repressed or suppressed or forgotten, only to show up later. Freud knew this and based much of psychoanalysis on recovery of repressed memory. He perfected techniques of dream analysis, free association and transference (in which feelings from unconscious experiences with significant persons from the past—usually parents–are “transferred” to the therapist and are eventually made conscious, analyzed and understood). Post-traumatic therapy is very different from Freudian therapy.

My job as a therapist is to help someone master their all too conscious memories, not to dredge up unconscious, unremembered traumas from the past. Perhaps you have experienced both problems. Traumas from the past have been hidden, then they erupted. Traumas from more recent experience have haunted you in the usual pattern of PTSD, with episodes of intense, unwanted re-experiencing. Researchers have different theories to explain this. Our brains are not all wired the same way. Some of us are more likely than others to respond to trauma with a PTSD pattern. Trauma causes release of adrenalin and related biochemicals. A vulnerable brain responds by capturing the images at the time of adrenalin rush in a trauma memory system. This system responds later in life, triggered by unconscious or conscious reminders. To get over the PTSD pattern of response, one has to “master the memory” and transform it from the trauma system into the regular memory system. You never forget. But you need not constantly remember. Repressing is not the same as forgetting. It is a way of sparing yourself awareness of what is under the surface, silently but powerfully affecting your behavior and your emotions.