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PTSD Since Childhood, With No Memory Of Trauma?

Question:

Hello Dr. Schwartz, I am a 21 year old female, and I have recently been tentatively diagnosed with PTSD by my therapist. I was surprised when he brought up PTSD, but I have all the symptoms, lasting as long as I can remember since childhood— terrifying nightmares, obsessive flashback thoughts that are vivid and consuming (not to the trauma itself but to real and imaginary events that have common themes and may symbolize it), social anxiety and a history of airplane phobia, history of disturbing childhood play, vigilance and over-alertness to attack, trouble falling and staying asleep, dysthimia, trouble concentrating and bad memory, feeling emotionally detached from loved ones, headaches and sharp stomach pains, etc. The problem is, I have thought and thought about what the trauma might be, and I just don’t know. I have had sad and scary things happen to me, but none of them seem like they would be a traumatic trigger. I’ve had the above symptoms for as long as I can remember. Is it possible for childhood traumas to have been lost from memory but still have an affect? Or is this probably just a misdiagnosis?

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Answer:

I have no way of being able to state, with any kind of certainty, that you diagnosis is correct or not, although it seems to be a good one. However, I can tell you that it is common to have suffered a trauma early in life and not have any memory of it while retaining all of the symptoms you have properly listed above. In fact, even later in life, a trauma can occur, be forgotten yet the individual experiences all of the typical symptoms.

There are many books on this issue that can be found on the self help shelf of most book stores. What they all discuss is that what is driven down into the unconscious mind (forgotten) is remembered in other ways.

Let me give you a hypothetical example that is purely fictional yet happens to a lot of people:

"A girl is repeatedly raped when she is quite young. She forgets the memory of the horrible rapes but grows into adolescence and young adulthood as very obese. There is no history of obesity in the family and it is not a hormonal issue. However, what the obesity does for her is keep interested males away from her. She will not be aware of this until she enters psychotherapy. She enters therapy not because of her weight but because she has shocking nightmares, flashbacks that she cannot understand and acute panic reactions."

In other words, her weight is expressing her fear of men and of being raped once again even though she cannot remember.

One method used to recover these types of memories and be rid of them for good is called EMDR. I do not know if your therapist does this but you might discuss it with the therapist and see if a referral can be made. I have know people who have done this and were satisfied with the results.

Best of Luck

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