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How does trauma affect memory?

by Sam Dylan Finch

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Sometimes, it was the weather. I’d wake up, the feeling of winter giving way to spring creeping up on me—it was like a bad case of déjà vu that followed me for hours, even days at a time. Sometimes, it was a sound—a wind chime, car brakes squealing, a song on the radio—and my whole body would turn cold and motionless.

Unexceptional things could yank me right out of my body, without warning or explanation. It was like my body could vividly remember things that my conscious mind couldn’t quite recall.

“It’s a flashback,” my therapist finally explained.

Someone once told me that who we are is just a collection of stories that we tell ourselves over and over again. If that’s true, we’re all just the composition of our memories, pieced together in whatever ways we can make sense of. As a survivor of complex trauma, I live in a nest of painful and even confused memories, rearranging the pieces that never feel settled or composed. I live in a near-constant state of remembering, but the act of remembering is not always visual or conscious.

Prior to being diagnosed with complex PTSD, my mind would desperately try to make sense of how something entirely new could feel known to me.

“I’m crazy,” I told my therapist. “It’s like déjà vu, over and over and over.”

“It’s a trigger,” he replied. “You’re not crazy, you’re traumatized.”

Complex PTSD is a psychological disorder brought on by prolonged trauma, usually harm or neglect by a caregiver or relationship that is exacerbated by an uneven power dynamic. Rather than a single stressor or event, C-PTSD is a distinct form of trauma that is repetitive in nature. The research is still emerging, and the category itself has yet to make it into the DSM, but many trauma-informed clinicians use this framework to support survivors in therapeutic settings.

Having C-PTSD introduced to me in therapy made me realize how little I understood about memory and how it functions. Memory, to me, had almost always involved pictures—my brother’s face, a conversation with an ex, my old elementary school, the neighborhood I grew up in. I thought memories needed to be vivid, something I could anchor myself to.

But with complex trauma, my memories were not always anchors. Sometimes they were both familiar but unreal, leaving me feeling cut loose and drifting. This would later be described to me as dissociation (the unreal, out-of-body experiences common for survivors).

Ann Fink, Ph.D. and Wittig Fellow in Feminist Biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializes in the neurobiology of memory and emotion. I spoke with her about the complexity of memory, especially as it pertains to survivors.

“Psychological trauma sets into motion several processes throughout the brain and body that make the body ready to respond to danger,” Fink explained. “A lot of this ­isn’t conscious or explicit, and happens very quickly … Non-specific bodily feelings or altered states of consciousness are common in PTSD.”

Fink went on to explain that particularly with chronic, prolonged trauma, explicit memory can be impaired—meaning recall of specific events or facts can become muddled, fuzzy, or difficult. This is why survivors of C-PTSD might experience more embodied remembering or sensory experiences that aren’t necessarily attached to something that is easy to explain or recall.

Christopher Alvaro, a professor and researcher of neuroscience (as well as a complex trauma survivor), articulated this experience to me: “[It’s] a feeling of a memory that I can’t fully place. The way I think of this is sort of an overflow or overwhelming of the system that makes the person unable to process.”

Memory, then, like trauma, is complex. Sometimes it’s like tying our shoes, as Alvaro explained. Sometimes it’s the inherent motions of riding a bike, like Fink mentioned. Explicitimplicit; conscious, unconscious. Sometimes it’s more elusive, like a trigger that trips the wire, leaving us collapsing into a fight, flight, or freeze response that we can’t entirely explain.

Both Fink and Alvaro seemed to agree that memory and recall are as layered and individual as the survivors themselves. “The types of memory and associated symptoms accessed in PTSD are going to vary widely depending on individual characteristics and experience,” Fink explained. “These feelings and memories are not unusual, and they can be addressed [with] a skilled therapist who has experience with disorders of stress and trauma.”

For survivors like Alvaro, the process will take time: “Trauma interferes with narrative building … I would tell survivors to not be afraid to revisit the story. [But] there is no rush to any of this. You are doing the work and that’s beautiful.”

However terrifying, I’ve learned with time that the work is, indeed, quite beautiful. We can emerge on the other side of it more whole, more grounded. And for survivors, living lives that are so often disjointed, finding our anchor and defining our narrative can be transformative. Whatever we do or don’t remember, and however the memories come to the surface, our story belongs to us. And that’s a power no trauma can take away from us.

Sam Dylan Finch

Sam Dylan Finch is a freelance writer and media strategist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Best known for his powerful writing on queer identity and mental health, he draws from personal experience as a transgender person living with mental illness. He's passionate about empowering his communities and busting stigma, one article at a time.

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