This article was developed via a partnership with BetterHelp.
For those who have been through abuse, whether from a family member during childhood or from a romantic partner in adulthood, memory can become blurry and difficult. You may find yourself unable to recall specific details or completely blacking out the memory and not being able to recall anything about it.
For some people, certain discoveries and memories surface in therapy with a trained therapist while working through more surface-level traumas and fears. These memories can be distressing, especially when you realize that you have completely forgotten them. So, why can’t you remember what happened? Does trauma really erase your memory?
Why Do We Forget Extremely Traumatic Events and Abuse?
As you might find, our brains do a lot to protect us, and a loss of memory may be just that. The dissociation and trauma response in the brain during an event is actually a small blessing in disguise. It takes over your mind to reduce the emotional response you might have to a dangerous event so that you can protect yourself and get out. Adrenaline starts pumping in your veins, and you go into fight, flight, or freeze mode.
During this time, you may feel that you are “floating above your body” or watching the situation from afar, even though you are present. Your mind does this to distance you from a threat that you cannot escape. If you are unable to run away or fight back, you will likely enter this state of dissociation and depersonalization. It can also happen during a freeze response in people who have learned to “blackout” when experiencing something traumatic.
Studies show that this happens in other animals as well, such as mice. It’s a short-term protective strategy meant to keep you from experiencing the full harm you’re going through. Certain receptors in your brain will turn on to hide these memories during the trauma, which cannot be accessed again until the same reaction in you takes place. This means that we often can’t remember trauma until we’re experiencing more trauma or during trauma-based therapy when working to activate the brain.
For those who have left an abusive/dangerous situation or relationship, these memories can stay locked inside your mind for a long time, and small triggers or memories of that event can bring it up. This is a common symptom of PTSD. However, there are also memories that may not be recalled at all or may only come up after extensive therapy. In the long-term, these memories can cause anxiety, depression, PTSD, nightmares, and more.
How Can I Remember a Traumatic Event That I Forgot?
If you have forgotten a trauma, the best way to remember it is to meet with a licensed therapist who can lead you through the healthiest and safest way to retrieve these memories. Remember, being able to remember trauma is not always the end goal. Resurfacing emotions and reliving an experience that was dangerous to you, whether emotionally or physically, can also cause side effects.
Reliving trauma can cause physical health problems, headaches, panic attacks, and suicidal urges. It’s essential that you work with a trained therapist who understands trauma so that your response to working on it can be monitored and so you don’t go faster than is good for you.
You may find that remembering the trauma is not as important to you as healing it. Fortunately, you don’t have to remember the details of an event to heal the damage it caused. A trained trauma therapist can help you find compassion for your past self and heal any wounds caused by your abuser.
If you want to learn more about how this process works and what abuse does to your mental health, you can also check out BetterHelp, the leading provider of online mental health care.