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Memory and Mental Health

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Memories can be immensely powerful, and for people struggling with mental health conditions, that power can be a burden. Memory keeps a record of what has made someone uneasy or upset, what undercut a person’s sense of self-worth, what brought extraordinary shock or pain. Also, perhaps, the unhealthy habits that have provided temporary relief. Because memory has an important role in pathological thinking and behavior, however, what scientists and clinicians have learned about memory can also be key to helping people recover from mental illness.

Memory and Common Mental Disorders

Widespread mental health conditions such as depression, substance use disorders, and anxiety disorders have complex causes that differ substantially. Yet it is clear that each is characterized, in some ways, by how memory works in the people who suffer from them. And the experience of psychological stress—something known to every human, but which surfaces intensely in a range of disorders—is well established as a force affecting how we remember.

Can stress impair memory?

Stressful situations (such as when someone narrowly avoids a threat) can result in strong future memories about the experience. But during a stressful event, remembering information can be more challenging than usual. Over time, chronic stress and elevated levels of stress hormones like cortisol may have a detrimental effect on the ability to remember. Taking steps to reduce stress is one way people can seek to preserve memory ability.

Can depression make you forgetful?

Depression is associated with multiple kinds of cognitive impairment, including forgetfulness— though memory difficulties often resolve after a depressive episode is successfully treated, according to the DSM-5. A depressed person may also show other memory differences, including relatively weak memory for positive events, stronger memory for negative ones, and relatively general (rather than specific) recollections about personal experience. Depression has been linked with reduced volume in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is important for memory.

Trauma and Memory

Memory extends the reach of traumatic experiences—shocks to the system such as acts of violence or abuse or a life-threatening accident—allowing them, in many cases, to continue to disrupt the lives of those who had them long after they occur. Post-traumatic stress disorder is marked, in part, by upsetting and uncontrolled memories, which trauma-focused therapies are used to help defuse.

How does trauma affect memory?

After someone suffers a traumatic experience, common reactions include mentally replaying the memory of the experience. Recurring, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories are one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes, when the memory of a trauma is cued by an experience in the present, the individual may feel as though the traumatic experience is happening again—a reaction commonly called a flashback. Given that these forms of re-experiencing can be highly distressing, it is also common for someone who has lived through trauma to try to avoid thinking about the experience and to avoid cues that may trigger the memory of the experience. 

What triggers traumatic memories?

A variety of things can remind someone of a traumatic experience and potentially cause distress or other forms of re-experiencing. These cues may include places, people, or other things related to the traumatic event(s), such as a location close to where the event occurred, a person who looks like the one who caused the trauma, or a situation that resembles, in some way, that in which the traumatic experience occurred. They may also include internal physiological states associated with the experience.

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