Psychology/Forgetting details of traumatic events
QUESTION: Dear Mr Stark,
Is it possible to know a traumatic event occurred in your life, but have no memory of the details? I've read before about "repressed memories" wherein a traumatic event is forgotten in its entirety. What I'd like to know is, is it possible to know that a traumatic event occurred, because other people were there and they remember it also, and to remember the beginning of the event, but then have no memory of the details once the trauma had started? Even though you know it happened, and you remember everything from after it ended?
Thank you very much for your help.
ANSWER: Dear David:
Thank you for the question. Repression of traumatic events is a very real phenomena, in fact this acts as a defense mechanism. Freud believed that (Sdorow & Rickabaugh, 2002), "a person might forget a traumatic event by repressing the memory to the unconscious mind." At some point the memory may resurface with the help of a therapist or something that triggers the locked memory. Others may tell us of an event that we have no recollection of. Think of this as something being locked away in a vault. The event was so painful that the only way of surviving this would be to lock it up or repress it.
Ph. in Progress
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QUESTION: Dear Mr Stark,
Thank you very much for your thorough and informative answer.
Would you be kind enough to answer me one more question? I read that forgetting, or the inability to recall a portion of a traumatic event, was considered a key factor for the diagnosis of PTSD – would you be able to tell me how often those that don't remember traumatic events suffer from PTSD? Do those that don't remember traumatic events always suffer from PTSD?
Thank you so much for your time.
This is not my specific area of expertise however, I will attempt to answer your question. Excellent question, by the way. According to the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) IV-TR, "a diagnosis of acute stress disorder (ASD) is indicated" if the stress symptoms occur for 30 days. If the person suffers for more than one month, or begin a month after the trauma, the diagnosis will be for PTSD. There are three types of PTSD, acute, chronic (lasting more than 3 months), and delayed onset, when at least six months goes by between the initial onset (traumatic event) and the onset of symptoms. I don't have specific statistics for you regarding those who recall and those who repress the trauma. However, I do know that it is different for men versus women. I would also guess that those who forget may not always suffer from PTSD (it just depends on the severity).
Hope that helps,
Former Substance Abuse Counselor