Memory Loss and PTSD Symptoms: Emotional Avoidance, Emotional Numbing and Motivated Forgetting

Memory Loss and PTSD Symptoms: Emotional Avoidance, Emotional Numbing and Motivated Forgetting


Trauma and anxiety disorders often go hand in hand, which reflects psychological disturbances from the suffering. Social phobia interferes with a person’s life, work performance and interpersonal relationships.


According to Casa Palmera Staff in her article Trauma and Anxiety Disorders,  common anxiety disorders caused by trauma ranged from obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress Disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, agoraphobia to social phobia.


In my viewpoint, the aforementioned anxiety disorders usually occur after a terrifying event or series of traumatic events, all of which cause the sufferer or the abused to avoid situations or places which will potentially trigger dangers or disturbing memories.


Anxiety disorders are usually accompanied by physical symptoms, such as avoidance behaviors. Any avoidance behavior can be regarded as the manifestation of the sufferer’s defensive mechanism to fight against any possible danger, discomfort or attack.


The common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include emotional numbing, physical sensations, etc.


People with PTSD Escape Their Emotions

Generally, people with emotional numbing symptoms have difficulties in experiencing positive emotions including happiness and love, and they keep emotional detachment from others.

According to Matthew Tull “Emotional numbing symptoms are part of the avoidance cluster of PTSD symptoms [….] PTSD and emotional avoidance go hand-in-hand”


Matthew Tull explained that people with PTSD escape their emotions and try hard to avoid feelings, conversations or anything related to past traumatic event or places or people that have something to do with disturbing memories.


Matthew Tull asserts that emotional voidance also refers to the difficulty of “remembering important parts of the traumatic event” as though their “life has been cut short.”


Studies found that avoidance of negative emotions help people from falling apart or breakdown, but also keep the person in constant vigilance. In a sense, people with PTSD might shun away from old acquaintances or old friends. They tend to avoid any ups and downs of the emotions.


Defense mechanism: Dissociative amnesia and Motional Numbing 

According to Casa Palmera Staff in her article How Trauma Affects Your Memory, memory loss, particularly “dissociative amnesia” is a natural survival skill and defense mechanism” for people to shield themselves from “psychological damage,” in which result from physical or emotional traumatic events.


Dissociative amnesia allows the sufferer to temporarily forget traumatic details of the event. Casa Palmera Staff pinpoints that “a person will often suppress memories of a traumatic event until they are able to handle them, which may never occur.”


Past or recent trauma, emotional or physical abuse or extreme stress, such as from a natural disaster, can cause dissociative amnesia. Researchers have identified abnormal changes in brainwave activity in people with dissociative amnesia.


Motional numbing does help people cool down their immense emotions. Nevertheless, by running away from disquieting and unnerving emotions, they are forced to give up many life experiences or narrow down their life chances by staying in the comfort zone forever.


Memory Loss: Motivated forgetting

Memory loss is usually limited to a specific period. Motivated forgetting occurs when people find unpleasant memories are too troublesome to think about.


Sigmund Freud attributed many memory failures, particularly involving painful childhood experiences, to repression, literally the process of keeping disturbing thoughts or feelings relegated to the unconscious.


In Michael C. Anderson and Simon Hanslmayr’s essay Neural mechanisms of motivated forgetting, it denotes thatWhen reminded of negative events, we are not well disposed towards them and we deliberately limit their tenure in awareness” by excluding “the unwanted memory from awareness” deliberately or reducing “ accessibility of experiences” that would undermine our confidence or optimism so as to protect our emotional state or “sustain positive emotions,” or concentration.

Motivated forgetting can be interpreted as an “emotion regulation [1]” that people regulate their negative emotions by suppressing the frequency of  “offending memories[2].” Offending memories ranged from fear, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, anxiety, to embarrassment.


As noted in, “memory inhibition” may “deceive others and even oneself.[3]” (Neural mechanisms of motivated forgetting, Michael C. A, and S. H ). People protect their self-image by selectively “forgetting that which threatens their sense of self” out of self-protection by means of “inhibitory control ability.” (Neural mechanisms of motivated forgetting, Michael C. A, and S. H ).

The researches take a step further by arguing “forgiving and forgetting may indeed be closely related.”

  • Retrograde amnesia is the inability to remember happenings that preceded the traumatic event producing the amnesia.
  • Anterograde amnesia is the inability to remember happenings that occur after a traumatic event.

Emotional Avoidance: Dissociation

Avoidance behavior occurred to prevent any uncomfortable emotion, such as sadness, pain or shame. A person may attempt to avoid feeling any emotion through dissociation.

Studies found people with PTSD often try to push away their emotions or withhold emotions. Thus, emotional avoidance is often considered a coping strategy to shield themselves from pain.


How to Combat Emotional Avoidance?

Sometimes, when we let our emotions build up, they may explode out of the blue.

Self-monitoring your emotions and find ways to release your emotions by writing or any approach.[4] Seeking mental support from trusted loved ones or writing down your all antagonistic pessimistic gloomy feelings can also help you to release your negative emotion.

Most people with phobias are being powerless to their fears and anxiety. Exposure to a phobia cause overpowering intolerable terror to them, so they avoid any chances to confront their trauma or fear.

▲People with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) are preoccupied with one or more “defects” in their appearance that most people hardly notice. This obsession with their body defects causes significant stress and can lead to compulsive behaviors such as repeatedly checking their appearance.

▲Social Anxiety Disorder, also titled as social phobia, refers to an intense fear of being badly-judged, or ill-treated, or negatively evaluated in a social gathering. And the anxiety is too strong that a person would try his best to avoid any social occasions. People with mild social phobia might encounter anxiety in certain particular situations, such as public speaking, talking on the phone, etc. 

▲Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are obsessed with unwanted thoughts and impulses to perform repetitive and ritualistic behaviors so as to relieve their discomfort or anxiety.

▲Panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden rushes of intense fear and anxiety and are accompanied by physical symptoms such as chest pain, racing or pounding heart, shortness of breath, nausea, fear of dying, etc.


“ Most notably used by Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytic theory, a defense mechanism is a tactic developed by the ego to protect against anxiety. Defense mechanisms are thought to safeguard the mind against feelings and thoughts that are too difficult for the conscious mind to cope with.” 20 Common Defense Mechanisms People Use for Anxiety

Relevant Articles 

Monuments of memory: defensive mechanisms of the collective psyche and their manifestation in the memorialization process. by Kalinowska M. 

Defense Mechanisms: Neuroscience Meets Psychoanalysis : Suppression and dissociation, two psychoanalytic defense mechanisms, are now studied by modern neuroscience  By Heather A. Berlin, Christof Koch



1.Emotional Numbing and Other Avoidance Symptoms of PTSD

By Matthew Tull, PhD

2.How PTSD Can Affect Relationships By Casa Palmera Staff

3.How Trauma Affects Your Memory By Casa Palmera Staff

4.Spiegel D. Dissociative Amnesia. Merck Manual website. Last reviewed/revised July 2015. Accessed March 13, 2017.

5.Mental Health America website. Dissociation and Dissociative Disorders.

Staniloiu A, Markowitsch HJ. Dissociative amnesia. The Lancet Psychiatry. August 2014;1(3):226-241.

6.Kikuchi H, Fujii T, Abe N. et al. Memory repression: Brain mechanisms underlying dissociative amnesia. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. March 2010;22(3):602-613.

7. Radulovic J. Using new approaches in neurobiology to rethink stress-induced amnesia. Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports. March 2017;4(1):49-58

On the flip side, according to recent psychological research by David Barlow, Steven Hayes, and others, one of the chief causes of many psychological problems is the habit of emotional avoidance.

It’s normal for human beings to avoid negative emotions by securing momentary relief. We have seen people tend to get drunk when they under great stress and it does work, whereas the bad feelings pour in the next day, and they get more drinks to get drunk again. What happens? They attempt to keep numbing their brains by alcohol abuses to deal with the unresolved issues.

Over time, avoidance becomes an ingrained habit that they tend to avoid many situations, people, experiences, and places that may stir negative or uncomfortable emotions to mind.


As for me, as the bad moments come, I wrote down my troublesome feelings in the role of an outsider and depicted my feelings honestly. Then, I will get a clearer view of the things which disturb me.

Significantly, emotional avoidance involves running away from the troublesome reality or denying the hard truth.


Bad emotions come back repeatedly if you do not knock it down. As you are fragile, think of anything or anyone who demands your protection, such as your kids, family or self-esteem. Assume the role of caregiver makes you strong.

Acknowledged your weakness and overcome it. Get to know the causality of your anger or disappointment rather than just push bad emotions away.


[1] Reference: Neural mechanisms of motivated forgetting

[2] Reference: Neural mechanisms of motivated forgetting

[3] Reference: Neural mechanisms of motivated forgetting

[4] Cognitive-behavioral and psychoanalytic/psychodynamic therapies are available options. Another behavior therapy named acceptance and commitment therapy (or ACT), focuses on breaking down avoidance and being willing to experience whatever emotions arise. Psychoanalytic/psychodynamic approaches focus more on early childhood experiences.

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