Traumatic Amnesia: The Body Does Not Lie

This information is from The Sidran Foundation: Traumatic Stress Institute. They have a tremendous amount of information on the effects of trauma on human beings, including books and literature pamphlets….

Recent debates between differing schools of scientific thought, fueled by the media and by lay organizations with varied political agendas, have left the public confused and misinformed regarding the nature of traumatic memories. This confusion is causing great distress to many people who are survivors of child abuse and those who care about them.

The purpose of this brochure is to reach beyond the hype of popular media and the rhetoric of single-purpose organizations to clarify the issues and to discuss the body of knowledge agreed upon by most mental health professionals about traumatic memories and their retrieval.

There is strong documentation to prove the high incidence of child abuse in the general population. Sexual abuse of children and adolescents is known to cause severe psychological and emotional consequences. Adults who were sexually abused in childhood are at higher risk for developing a variety of psychiatric disorders, including dissociative disorders (such as dissociative identity disorder/multiple personality disorder), anxiety disorders (panic attacks, etc.), personality disorders (borderline personality disorder, etc.), mood disorders (such as depression), PTSD, and addictions.

In order to understand the essential issues about traumatic memory, one must first understand the human mind’s response to a traumatic event.

“What is trauma, and how do people cope with it?

Psychological “trauma” is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others.” Examples include military combat, violent personal attack, natural or human-made disasters, and torture. For children, sexually traumatic events may include age-inappropriate sexual experiences without violence or injury. (DSM IV, p. 424)

Like adults who experience trauma, children and adolescents who have been abused cope by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. One of the most effective ways people cope with overwhelming trauma is called “dissociation.” Dissociation is a complex mental process during which there is a change in a person’s consciousness which disturbs the normally connected functions of identity, memory, thoughts, feelings, and experiences (daydreaming during a boring lecture is a good example).

How does trauma affect memory?

People may use their natural ability to dissociate to avoid conscious awareness of a traumatic experience while the trauma is occurring, and for an indefinite time following it. For some people, conscious thoughts and feelings, or “memories,” about the overwhelming traumatic circumstance may emerge at a later date. This delayed retrieval of traumatic memories has been written about for nearly 100 years in clinical literature on military veterans who have survived combat.

In fact, in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric diagnosis common among people who have survived horrific events, the defining diagnostic features are memory distortions. People with PTSD inevitably experience extremes of recall regarding traumatic circumstances: intrusive memories of the event (hypernesia) or avoidance of thoughts and feelings about the event (amnesia).

Some people say they are “haunted” by memories of traumatic experiences which intrude on and disrupt their daily lives. They often can’t get the “pictures” of the trauma out of their heads. They may have recurring nightmares, “flashbacks,” or they may even relive the trauma as if it was happening in present time.

It is also common for traumatized people to make deliberate efforts to avoid thoughts or feelings about the traumatic event and to avoid activities or situations which may remind them of the event. In some severe cases, avoidance of reminders of the trauma may cause a person to have “dissociative amnesia,” or memory blanks for important aspects of the trauma.

Why do some people undergoing extreme stress have continuous memory and others have amnesia for all or part of their experience?

There are several factors that influence whether a traumatic experience is remembered or dissociated. The nature and frequency of the traumatic events and the age of the victim seem to be the most important. Single-event traumas (assault, rape, witnessing a murder, etc.) are more likely to be remembered, but repetitive traumas (repeated domestic violence or incest, political torture, prolonged front-line combat, etc.) often result in memory disturbance. The extremely stressful experiences caused by natural or accidental disasters (earthquakes, plane crashes, violent weather, etc.) are more likely to be remembered than traumatic events deliberately caused by humans (i.e. incest, torture, war crimes). People who are adults when they experience traumatic events are less likely to dissociate conscious memories of the events than children who experience trauma. Research shows that the younger the child is at a time of the trauma, the less likely the event will be remembered.

Case studies show that traumatic events in which there is pressure toward secrecy are more likely to induce forgetting as a dissociative defense. For example, a woman who is brutally attacked by a stranger but who receives sympathy, family support, and many opportunities to tell her story, may suffer from PTSD, but is unlikely to develop amnesia for the event. However, a young girl who endures repeated incest with her father and has been sworn to secrecy will more likely have memory impairment for the abuse.

Clinical evidence indicates that the population most likely to develop amnesia for traumatic experiences consists of child victims coerced into silence about repetitive, deliberately caused trauma such as incest or extra-familial physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Another factor that contributes to memory disturbances is the double-bind felt by children trying to make sense of living in abusive relationships on which they depend for nurturance. Doctors or therapists can have an indication of dissociative amnesia if there are gaps or blank periods in a person’s autobiographical memories.

Girl Child Abuse

What is known about how memories work?

Human memory is a complex operation. Although there is still much to learn about how memories work, scientists generally understand and accept that there are four stages of memory: intake, storage (encoding), rehearsal, and retrieval. Each of these processes can be influenced by many factors such as developmental stage, setting, expectation, post-event questioning, etc. Even the conditions at the time of the telling of a memory can change the form of the memory, influencing its content and belief in the truth of the memory in the future.

Most scientists also agree that there are two identified forms of memory: explicit and implicit. Explicit memory, also called declarative or narrative memory, is the ability to consciously recall facts or events. This is the form of memory used, for example, when a person recounts the events of his or her day at work or school. Implicit memory, also called procedural or sensorimotor memory, refers to behavioral knowledge of an experience without conscious recall. A person who demonstrates proficiency at reading but who cannot remember how he or she learned the skill is an example of implicit memories in the absence of explicit memories.

Why are traumatic memories controversial?

There are differing schools of thought, grounded in solid research and clinical experience, about the reliability of memory. The details of this scientific debate are often obscure, and the subtleties can be confusing to the public.

Some researchers have proven in the laboratory that ordinary or slightly stressful memories are easily distorted. These scientists are concerned that therapists may be unintentionally distorting the memories of people who report histories of traumatic abuse. This is of particular concern to scientists studying the effects of hypnosis on eyewitness testimony because there is laboratory evidence that setting and expectation can “contaminate” a person’s memories.

However, this laboratory research on ordinary memory may be irrelevant in regard to memories of traumatic experiences. Scientists argue that traumatic memories are different from ordinary clinical memories in the way they are encoded on the brain. There is evidence that trauma is stored in the part of the brain called the limbic system, which processes emotions and sensations, but not language or speech. For this reason, people who have been traumatized may live with implicit memories of the terror, anger, and sadness generated by the trauma, but with few or no explicit memories to explain the feelings. Trauma clinicians believe that implicit memories are not easily distorted. It would, of course be unethical to create in a laboratory setting the traumatic experiences necessary to study traumatic memories and their ease of contamination or distortion. For this reason, our knowledge of traumatic memories must come from clinical experience. Clinical data since 1919 has shown a direct correlation between trauma and amnesia or other memory disturbance (Van der Kolk, 1994).

What about memory retrieval long after the trauma?

Sometimes a current event or experience may trigger long-forgotten memories of earlier trauma. Often when this happens, the person may be “flooded” with implicit sensorimotor memory: he or she may have just the picture, the feeling, the physiological panic aroused by the memory of the traumatic event without the facts that would explain the meaning of the sensations. Initially, the person may not even be aware of what has triggered the memory, or how the pictures and feelings relate to his or her life.

There is often intense psychological distress when a person is exposed to events which in some way resemble or symbolize the past trauma. These “triggers” may be any sound, smell, or other stimulus such as hot, humid weather which may remind a veteran of his service in southeast Asia, or the smell of a particular cologne which was worn by an abuser.

Can I believe my memories?

At this time, there is no completely accurate way of determining the validity of abuse reports without external corroboration, and that kind of corroboration is often impossible. Many things—questioning (especially of young children), suggestion by a trusted person, even the recounting of a traumatic experience in therapy—may influence the accuracy of abuse memories. Even people who have documented corroboration about their abuse may have inconsistent elements in their stories.

Nevertheless, trauma specialists such as Harvard’s Dr. Bessel van der Kolk believe that “the body cannot lie.” If a person spontaneously sees a flashback and feels terrified, the feeling can be trusted, especially before an implicit memory has been discussed and possibly contaminated. If the person has the symptoms of PTSD, or a dissociative disorder that is known to be associated with a traumatic history, then it is likely that there are real traumatic experiences in the person’s background. Unless one is preparing for a criminal investigation, the exact authenticity of a specific memory may not be important.

(My note: “The body cannot lie” is testimony to my experience. A person cannot heal from Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, from repeated Shingles outbreaks, heart palpitations, bladder dysfunction, severe gastrointestinal problems, migraine headaches, and from the multitude of other physical problems and psychological dysfunction I have healed from by remembering things that are untrue.

It is the job of the individual to figure out his or her own life history. Many people with post-traumatic stress or dissociative disorders have found it helpful to gather information from siblings or other family members to help them understand their memories.


(Image of a comparison of brain scans from two three-year-old children. The image on the right, came from the brain of a child severely neglected by its mother)

What do I do if I can’t remember?

Not all abuse or trauma survivors can clearly remember their traumatic experience/s. Some individuals have only a vague recollection of “something” happening; others can’t recall anything traumatic occurring in their lives at all.

Even before you begin to tackle the issue of traumatic memories, the first critical aspect of your therapeutic work will be to stabilize your current functioning. Memory loss related to traumatic experiences may serve as a protective function, which should be respected. “Digging up” the past will not alleviate your current difficulties. There is no such thing as a “quick fix” or “skipping steps” when it comes to healing from trauma. Without first establishing the necessary framework for a healthy lifestyle and level of functioning in the present, the challenges of coping with and integrating memories of past trauma may further add to your current difficulties and symptoms. Therefore, it is highly valuable to first work on your present life issues, the problems that you can more readily identify and address.

This will provide you with a solid foundation for further therapeutic work dealing with possible traumatic memories. If you are struggling with memory disturbances related to trauma or abuse, it is important for you to know you are not alone in this experience and you are not “going crazy.”

Here are some helpful things to keep in mind:

  • Recognize that there is a reason for your current difficulties; your “symptoms” are meaningful. They did not come from nowhere.
  • Trust in your own process and timing.
  • Find a treatment provider with whom you can establish a safe and trusting therapeutic relationship.

Just as it takes time to build strong foundations of trust and deep roots of connection in relationships with others, so too must you establish these elements internally to strengthen an inner connection within yourself. This will greatly support the work you do both therapeutically and individually.”

-Sidran Foundation



Child’s Brain Scan:

American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental     Disorders, Fourth Edition.

American Psychiatric Association (1993). Statement on Memories of Sexual Abuse.
Briere, J., and Conte, J. (1993). “Self-reported amnesia for abuse in adults molested as children,” Journal of Traumatic Stress, 6: 21–31.

Freyd, J. (1993). “Theoretical & Personal Perspectives on the Delayed Memory Debate,” Moving Forward 2, no. 4.

Family Therapy Networker, September/October 1993. Special Feature: The False Memory Debate. vol. 17, no. 5.

Herman, J. L. (1993). “False memory debate: Social science for social backlash,” Harvard Mental Health Letter. 9, no. 10.

Herman, J. L., and Schatzow, E. (1987). “Recovery and verification of memories of childhood sexual trauma,” Psychoanalytic Psychology, 4: 1–14.

Loftus, E.F. (1993). “The Reality of Repressed Memories,” American Psychologist 48, 518–537.

Perry, N. E., (1993). Memory Research: A Complete Bibliography.

Van der Kolk, B. (1994). “The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and the evolving psychobiology of post traumatic stress,” Harvard Review of Psychiatry. 1, no. 5.

Williams, L. M. (1992). “Adult survivors of childhood abuse: preliminary findings from a longitudinal study,” The Advisor 5, 19–20.

This public service brochure was developed by the Sidran Institute in conjunction with The Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Health System. Copyright 1994 by Sidran Institute.

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13 Responses to Traumatic Amnesia: The Body Does Not Lie

  1. Why Not? says:

    Alethea: I just finished reading the following book, as recommended by my therapist. When it was written, it was a first on “brother-sister incest.”

    It blew me away, with its candor. I highly recommend it.

    “Not Child’s Play: An anthology on brother-sister Incest”
    Edited by Risa Shaw

    Not Child’s Play is a unique collection of writings and art by women who are survivors of incest perpetrated by their brothers. This book explores this most difficult topic in an extraordinarily courageous and absolutely unprecedented way.

    Not Child’s Play gives voice to the silent cries of shame, anger and pain that have been buried in the hearts of small girls grown into wounded women. Comprised of individual testaments to the struggle and ultimate transcendence of sister survivors, this work is a paean of strength, compassion and hope to the tens of thousands who have shared this life-altering experience. Once sung, these songs will never again be silent.

    Not Child’s Play is a bomb that will drop into the complacent lives of families who will not or cannot see or hear their daughters’ and sisters’ unspoken pleas for protection, support and vindication. These words and images will break down the wall that has shielded brother-sister incest from the flame of public scrutiny and personal outrage. This book begins to name the deed, to break the cycle of shame and silence that has kept this issue of abuse conveniently hidden from public view.
    — Lynn Bonde, J.D., MSW

    Not Child’s Play is a lifeline for survivors, a mirror in which perpetrators might be able to see themselves clearly, an invaluable gift to society. By sharing the truths of their lives, these courageous women are helping to erase ignorance and transform denial into acknowledgement and action.
    — Lucy Tatman, PhD

    • Alethea says:

      Thanks so much Why Not, for the recommendation. I am pleased to know that someone has written such a good book on brother sister incest. Too many people, and parents, brush this abuse aside as “child’s play,” “exploration,” “no big deal” when often it is a much older brother, or forced on the sister, often including rape.

      But I hope that author writes another book on sibling incest that delves deeply into sister/sister and brother/brother incest –incest which is often abusive, and usually devastating on the young victim –incest that can, and often does, affect the sexuality of the child who is abused, and that can cause them to grow with sexual identity issues.

      It needs to be written, it needs to be said.

  2. Why Not? says:

    Once again, Alethea, your post validates, inspires and champions OUR journey(s).

    You have inspired me to “proclaim” a great deal more of truth lately – MY TRUTH!

    No one, no therapist, has EVER made suggestions of what “might have happened to me.” My symptoms, my struggles, the unrelenting surreal, vague, appallingly invasive “memories” are what drove me to seek help, time and time again.

    I could not take looking behind the curtain – all at once. It has come as I could emotionally handle it – piece-by-piece (scene by scene) – and ONLY after I could muster enough trust that I COULD GET THROUGH IT.

    The first thing I had to learn was – that I HAD TO LEARN TO “TRUST” that somewhere inside of me was the strength to get through it – whatever “it” was that my “symptoms” were imploring me to face.

    I had to learn that I COULD stare down the threats, guilt, blame, manipulations and control over maintaining the secrecy and gilded loyalty enshrouding MY EXPERIENCE of all of the abuse – and live!

    Today, I fully understand an absolute fact about INCEST: It shatters the very core of its victim’s ability to trust – anyone, anything, anybody, including her or his SELF… and for damned good reasons! Who wants to “remember” that those we were learning “to trust as our protectors” did what most strangers find so horrific… it is “unspeakable.”

    As for me, I not only can “remember” most of it now, but my healing, my sanity and the quality of my life matters far more than proving the “accuracy” of what should have never, ever been a part of my early human development in the first place.

    • Why Not? says:

      …And, giving myself permission to FEEL MY OWN FEELINGS about it all is absolutely liberating!

      • little nel says:

        “I could not take looking behind the curtain – all at once.”

        I can relate to this. I needed someone to hold my hand and support me emotionally each step on the way as I moved the curtain aside. Trying to find the words to describe the feelings and thoughts was confusing when I got a glimpse.

        Now that I know that I wasn’t to blame for the abuse, I can allow myself to look closer at what’s “behind the curtain” without fear and shame.

        • Why Not? says:

          little nel, I wanted to share this as if speaking directly to you (for the simple reason that from reading your comments, I think you will know how hard it’s been to even “imagine” such an experience.

          According to people that know me pretty well, I’ve always been “too compassionate, understanding…….. FORGIVING” toward my abusers. Many an argument has ensued over their assessment of my being “too forgiving.” I fiercely defended it as something ‘I BELIEVED IN.’

          I had a lot to sort out – from my ability to “see” my abusers somehow from within my soul as tortured (angry,) wounded (sick,) people – to my inability to not only “protect myself” from the relentless sexual, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual assaults I endured, but my inability to figure out how to “help them” – not to hurt me.

          Nothing worked. They blamed me for the abuse and I blamed me for being the object of it, as well as, for being unable to prevent it by somehow making their lives better.

          Night before last, I cried my eyes out. First, for all of the years I blamed myself for it all. Then came more tears, moved by compassion and understanding – as I FORGAVE MYSELF… for all of the tortured years…. of blaming myself.

          A huge part of my very existence – in reasonings and rationales – “suddenly” disappeared in the night and, quite frankly, I feel quite a void – a little lost – without them right now.

          There you have it. Talk about a “Survivors” Reality Show. lol. What an unpredictable journey. No?

          • little nel says:

            Hi Why Not?

            I can relate. I too, was unforgiving to myself while forgiving others, and when I realized it, I cried and told myself how sorry I was for it.

            I too, tried to make it all better for my family, only to fail, then beat myself up for it for being a failure.

            I was trying to fix something that has baffled doctors, clergy, and counselors for centuries and I didn’t know at the time.

            Here we are trying to change our abusers, in an effort to get them to stop abusing us because we believe that we are to blame.

            “Survivors” Reality Show. I too am laughing out loud at myself. It feels good to laugh at myself since I know the truth and have been freed from all that pain. It does feel like a void at first. It feels like moving from a furnished house, leaving the old furniture behind, and into a new empty house that’s ready for new furniture and decorating. Scary and exciting.

            It is an unpredictable journey. It is something that I would not change, knowing what I know now.

            • Why Not? says:

              Beautiful comment, little nel! I so needed to read it tonight… as I had a somewhat “emotional” session with a bit of “reality” anger – regarding my inability to confront an “unpredictable,” sexually abusive family member. (finally, directed at what HE did – not onto me, YEAH! Honestly, I think it’s the first time I can remember ever feeling anger without feeling GUILTY… )

              So, having embraced this post as ‘Gospels for Healing in the Light of Day,’ one of my short-term ‘play-time wishes’ is to GO FLY A KITE – literally! I can hardly wait!

              into a new empty house that’s ready for new furniture and decorating. Scary and exciting… It is something that I would not change, knowing what I know now.

              What a perfect metaphor… what an evolved prospective to look forward to realizing. Thank you, little nel. (I know you’re probably thinking, “Gee, I sure hope she’ll send in a pic of her kite?” Pssst, I was planning on it. lol!)

  3. little nel says:

    “You’re crazy” seems to be a common slogan that abusers use regularly.

    They set themselves up as the authority on who’s crazy and who’s not crazy in the family sphere as the only judge deemed worthy of making a decision.

    The family mental health experts that are entitled to grant “labels” for resisters to their abuses.

  4. Lori Cardille says:

    Thank you for this post Athena. Tears were running down my face reading this. When I was “remembering” back in 1987 I felt so alone and “crazy”. My uncle used to tell me how crazy I was as little girl. When I was “remembering” I had so many strange body sensations. I had the taste of sperm in my mouth, the sensation of something dripping down my chin, panic attacks all my life, depression, migraines, you name it.

    Today I am a whole, recovered woman with gratitude in my heart. I try to share my experience, strength and hope with other’s who are suffering.

    I did a full analysis in NYC. One of my mentours and best friends at the time had been analized by Freud. She grew up in Vienna and her father was Freud’s childrens pediatrician. At first Freud believed the woman coming into his office talking about sexual abuse. So many woman were coming to him that he switched and came up with the Seduction Theory because he couldn’t believe that so many were being abused. If he only knew he was right the first time.

    I thank you once again for the remarkable work you are doing Athena.

    I hope to meet you one day.

    Lori Cardille
    Author of “I’m Gonna Tell”

    • Alethea says:

      Freud, from what I understand, was sort of forced into his opinion because of his peers. They kind of scoffed at him and caused his denial system to balloon. It’s interesting isn’t it, that this mimics the family members, and friends of the perpetrator, who talk the victim out of their own beliefs and experiences because of the human denial system rejecting so many cases of incest.

      I so much appreciate you reading my blog and offering so much support. Maybe one day we will meet. I hope to do some public speaking some day soon 🙂


  5. As usual, this is key information in the EVOLUTION OF THE NATURE OF HUMANITY, and something that must be learned and understood, and the positive behaviors that are the best for all mankind and nature, must be encouraged and practiced by all…

    I see this, and many posts, as educational beyond the present standard level of education in SOCIAL SKILLS, and is representative of the way that people should interact at this time in the evolution of our societies.


    So, this is a lot of good reading, and effectively written, and I wish there was a facebook page i could go to and share? just to get the message out there more quickly? As it is, I copy and paste the url from the top of the page after I make my comment, SO THAT IS HOW I SHARE IT WITH OTHERS….

    • Alethea says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, although, I didn’t write this article.

      But I am a bit confused as to your wondering about sharing. There is a facebook sharing button on the bottom of each article. Do you mean that you are looking for a Facebook page for Ordinary Evil? Great idea.

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