PTSD is a Memory Problem

This post is for Veterans who have concerns about memory problems. I will talk about how PTSD has influenced my memory and thinking. This post is not a substitution for an evaluation by a healthcare professional. It’s just a simple man’s struggle to come to terms with his own issues.

My Own Experience

One morning, my world exploded, literally. In the weeks following my IED accident in 2008, I realized I had a ringside seat to my own destruction. Over the years I’ve watched my brain functions change one by one: emotions, speech, memory, self-awareness…
With this change went my old self, my self-confidence, and my memories. Amazed to find myself alive, I’ve spent the next nine years learning to cope and recover my ability to think, walk and talk. The IED blast was like having a stroke on steroids.

PTSD and Memory

PTSD “IS” a Memory Problem. The good news is we can do something about it. This is how PTSD influences memory and thinking.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a reaction to traumatic or very stressful situations. For veterans, it’s mostly associated with combat and overseas deployments. PTSD has been described as a “survival response in overdrive.” There are a number of features to this emotional response that can interfere with memory:

1. Feature: Reliving Bad Experiences.

Effect on Memory: Your mind is preoccupied with the past, so you pay less attention to what is happening right now.

2. Feature: Avoiding things that trigger bad memories.

Effect on Memory: You are focused on keeping out of danger rather than thinking about what people are saying or what is happening.

3. Feature: Being easily startled, or “on edge” all the time.

Effect on Memory: You are not able to be in the “here and now.” Your brain produces chemicals that make it harder to lay down new memories or experience joy.

Veterans with PTSD and their spouses often say they “zone out.” I misplace items, and I often forget what people tell me. I am still able to do day-to-day tasks, but some days this is very challenging.

Memory Problems

Memory is complicated. Learning new things requires three steps:

1. Taking in new information. Sometimes we are not even aware we are doing it or not.

2. Filing that new information. Processing the new information to use as a later time.

3. Recalling the information. Retrieving the new information at the right time.

I can tell you memory is never perfect. None of us remembers everything that happened, even a short time ago. I can usually remember the most important and dramatic details. Memory problems can happen in ANY of the three steps. Being distracted and stressed out makes it harder to do all of them. PTSD often gets in the way of the first step.

For me, my symptoms of PTSD can act like a filter that comes and goes- at times only allowing me to take in bits of the information. At other times information comes flooding in that I would rather block out. Strong emotions can interfere with memory. PTSD affects my memory indirectly, by interfering with my sleep.

Memory

An abacus is a counting frame. It’s a calculating tool used by merchants, traders, and clerks in the ancient world. Beads slide on wires to make calculations.

Imagine the beads on the abacus is your memory. Imagine there are 10 beads on wire strings. 5 beads for short-term memory and 5 beads for long-term memory. After my last IED explosion, I have 8 beads for long-term memory and 2 small beads for short-term memory.

I am an autodidact. In the past ten years on my own, without teachers and professors, I’ve learned military history, business management, computer programming, and three other languages. I read two to three books a week. I’ve gone to school, but only to learn more. I can choose a subject, study it and learn a lot of stuff in a short amount of time. I can recall the information almost at will. Sounds impressive, I am sure.

This sounds impressive until you realize the circuits of my short-term memory is fried. I have problems sleeping because my mind never turns off. I dream, I struggle and I get frustrated. I don’t know or how my memory works that way. I’ve worn the same t-shirt three days in a row and not realized it. I’ve had the same three conversations with my wife on the same, not realizing we talked about the same thing two other times. I have no concept of time. I have trouble with social nuances.

My memory is wonderful and awful at the same time.

What To Do?

These are ways that I’ve worked to improve my memory and thinking abilities to make my quality of life better:

1. Focus on the here and now. Recognize that bad things happened, but it doesn’t have to be the focus of your life.
2. Pace Yourself. I don’t take on too much anymore. This is the real reason I am retiring from the Army.
1. I live and die by my calendar. It’s annoying, but I have to write everything down.
2. I take regular breaks when I feel I am getting stressed.
3. I only do one thing at a time. If you don’t do something well, you’ll only do it again.
3. Get enough sleep. Sleep is nature’s medicine. I strive for seven hours a night.

Last Thing

I love the Saturday Night Live Character Stuart Smalley. Like Stuart- I am a caring nurturer, a member of several 12-step programs, but not a licensed therapist. This is my experience and my experience alone.

It took me a long time to realize I needed help. It wasn’t until I was living with my wife, I realized I was in trouble. She was a mirror and reflected my behavior back at me, telling me what I was doing and why.

My wife made sure she had my attention before we started conversations. She noticed when I distressed or preoccupied. With her love and support, I got my PTSD treated and worked with a Speech Pathologist on some coping skills to improve my memory.

I hope my story can help others.