Why You Can’t Remember Traumatic Events

May 2, 2012

Let me get the scientific part out of the way first. To understand the rest of this article, I need to define three things:

  1. Traumatic Event: Any happening which effects major change in our emotional, physical and memory functions
  2. Glucocorticoids: Substances produced during trauma that help our brain cope with the overwhelming nature of the event
  3. Hippocampus: The central core of our memory system that allows us to take events and store them in long-term memory.

Armed with those definitions, let me walk you through recent discoveries with memory research. In about a dozen studies (but most recently in this one by Benno Roozendaal et al), it has been shown that when we have a traumatic event in our lives, the body produces major amounts of glucocorticoids. This helps to calm us down so we can cope. It also gives us that “numb” feeling that many people describe during stress. But glucocorticoids have a transverse effect. They destroy neurons in the Hippocampus. This means that the more stress we are under, the less we will be able to store the traumatic event in long-term memory. This partially explains how some people who endured years of trauma through abuse have very little memory of the entire season of events.

However, there is one other effect of Glucocorticoids. They enhance the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system helps us store our emotional reactions in events. Our brains can actually store our emotional output during a traumatic event much more completely than we can store the facts of the event.

The implication of these two findings is huge for TPM (Theophostic Management) counseling. TPM counseling accesses emotional reactions in the present time and follows them back to their original memory. Since emotions are actually heightened during trauma, they are a more accurate way to access traumatic memories than any other method.

I consider this a true endorsement for TPM and EMDR approaches to emotional and spiritual well-being. Each of these counseling methods relies on triggered emotions to go back to false beliefs and decisions that are still affecting our lives from those trauma.


  1. I witnessed the murder of my mother and sister when I was five. When I woke up the next day I had no memory of the events. I was unable to tell the police any thing. I never received any counseling at the time. My family never spoke of my mother or sister. They acted as though they never existed.

    When I was fifteen I came across some news paper clippings in my dad’s desk. These clippings were about Mon and sister’s murder and also about the trail of the man who murdered them. Reading the events didn’t trigger any memories . When I got to the picture of the killer all my memories came back to me. The news articles had not gone into how he got into our home nor did it describe how he killed them. So I knew the memories I was having were my own. I also knew how I had hid when they were being killed.

    I don’t know how often seeing a picture can bring back suppress memories.

    There was another affect remembering had on me. I suddenly had a fear of someone braking into my home. I tryed to talk to my family about these things and they were unwilling to discuss. And the other effect was because I had unlocked the window the killer had entered, it was my fault my mother and sister had been killed.
    When I had gotten old enough to own firearms I kept one on my person at all times and I still do.
    I carried guilt with me into my mid 30s. Twenty years of a personal self made hell. It manifest as a deep constant sadness. It was not depression it was sadness and guilt. A friend made an observation. She said I had the saddest puppy dog eyes. I had never knew people could see my sadness. That’s when I saught professional help.

    This was a very good decision. I was lucky to find a very good psychologist who helped me update unrealistic childhood thoughts into mature adult thoughts. I was able to let go of my guilty thoughts regarding surviving and the guilt about it being my fault for leaving a window unlocked.

    Life should not be filled with with guilt or sadness. There are people out there who can help those of us who have been threw traumatic experiences.

  2. I was out of the blue wanting to look up people I knew in my past who I had liked. The second person I liked, I looked up and saw his pictures too and read up on him in the news. The next day and the next I started remembering all these times I had seen him and forgot, embarrassing things like throwing up in front of him and tripping on him and grabbing his shirt to catch my fall. Passable, but okay. Then I remembered being attacked by a very large drunk man who had grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I never remembered this actively before, but I was wide awake when I did and it was like I really was there and kept replaying in my head non stop, it would end and start back up and then I became preoccupied with it and couldn’t think of anything else. The thoughts were invasive coming to me hard like a train wreck. I remembered telling the guy he didn’t know me and to let me go, trying to take a step but he held on. I heard him saying he wanted to get to know me. I gave him as much a stern voice I could telling him to let me go and he wouldn’t. He had his hand under my shirt and was rubbing my back and I was angry. Then I remembered the guy going to my front and unhooking my front clasp bra and I flipped out trying to get away. I remembering crying or screaming, I was wiggling to get away and doing everything I could. Somebody else came and was trying to help me, they came in front of me so I could see them and then they tried to get the guy to let me go. I tried to wrap my body around the new guy to hide behind him. I thought the other guy touching a guy might make him let me go. I got let go of and started hurrying away and I heard someone getting pushed into something with a loud noise. I was worried about the other person so didn’t run when I had the chance, I froze. Then I became concerned that the guy who had grabbed me might have had a gun or knife, so I hid behind a chair and made myself as small as I could and protected as possible. The guy didn’t have a weapon and I don’t know why I thought he did. He pulled me out and I think slammed my head on the chair and started beating my back with loud heavy hollow sounds pulling my legs out behind me and hitting so hard, but I didn’t feel it to much, just the impacts. I was laying on my stomach and he came to my face and told me to stop flighting him which disturbed me because I wasn’t fighting him. I was paralyzed in fear. He went back behind me and dug his finger nails into my back which did really hurt and I began to wish I had just let him grope me and didn’t think I would survive. He starred pulling down my pants and I became enraged again and wanted to tell him he’d have to kill me before I let him rape me, but then my memory gaps. He was pulled off of me. I think the guy who pulled him off of me is the guy who I looked up, or at least I took him as him. My rescuer was trying to get me to make a police report, but I didn’t want to because I wanted to forget everything. Even talking to him I felt my memory slipping. I felt guilty that I had done something wrong and felt I would get arrested as well. I remember parts of our conversation. I remember the sound of his footsteps and the looks he gave me and him asking if there was anything he could do for me. I rehooked my bra back on in front of him while he stood guard as I smoothed my clothes. I saw the guy who attacked me, all fat and ugly with his mouth hanging open sitting in a chair as I walked out. I exited the building crying again and drove off really revving my engine and I remember crying really hard. I believe this event made me very scared of being out alone at night. I think it happened a year or two ago. I don’t get why I forgot. It feels real. But I was never thinking of it. Another memory of my helper came a week later which was much worst, where I had seen him on a night where I was given date rape drugs and raped at my house by 4 (boys) late teens to 20s, brought to my house by someone I knew Growing up who always called me by my sisters name and used to stalk me. Stalk me at my work calling me my sisters name. It was the person I grew up with who choose me and fell into me at the table when I was out and I think put something in my drink. This was I think closer to 4- 5 years ago. I hope to god that was a dream as I remember slamming a girls head into a door. And plain old embarrassment. The stocky black haired boy had tried to strangle me angery I had nothing of value to steal and he said he wanted to kill my cat and I yelled at him that I would kill him if he hurt her and he jumped on me squeezing my neck and jerking it around. And two of them said it was a bad idea to kill me. The guy who took them to my house was crying asking them not to hurt me and telling me to shut up and told me he was sorry. That’s a very vivid memory of that night and time as well. I’m not sharing all that happened. But, oh I hope it was just a very realistic nightmare that I am remembering. I remember thinking it was a dream at the time and not being able to wake up and throwing up and peeing myself. I remember talking a lot and trying to sleep with people. The guy who’s picture made me remember this all, I had seen him while I was drunk or drugged in that remembrance, I think drugged with grievous bodily harm because of the muscle jerking, and he did not save me that night. He was just someone I saw that night. I think I would have preferred not remembering or seeing any of this at all. I moved away, so it’s not relevant. But, I guess these visions are what makes me afraid to go out at night. It’s all so embarrassing. This dude who’s picture made me remember this all, I blocked all these memories of him out as well, normal decent ones, I guess it’s a fluke that I even remembered his name to look him up.

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