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PTSD Since Childhood, With No Memory Of Trauma?


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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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

More "Ask Dr. Schwartz" View Columnists

  • Anonymous-1

    Dear Dr. Schwartz,

    After many years of concern about the fact that I had no childhood memories, feeling as if I was born at age 15, and suffering severe depressions and suicide ideology, I ran out of options, meds and shrinks. Desperate for answers none the less, I entered EMDR therapy knowing it was a last resort.

    According to the information I learned about it, the average time was a few visits, six months at the most.

    After two years of this type of therapy I was no better for it and attempted suicide twice during those two years. I was unable to recall the obvious trauma, therefore unable to reprocess it. I expected that the clinician I was working with was not a good one. At 100 dollars a visit this therapy was actually as damaging than the problem I was trying to address. As an artist and a successful writer I'm sure being predominantly left brain functioning may be part of the problem. (Just a personal theory.)

    Sadly, I am still being triggered by family members and I do not know why.


  • Andrea

    PTSD Physical- I have had multiple traumas, starting in infancy. I had my first ashtma attack at age 9mos and nearly died. That happened several times. I awoke almost nightly for years and needed epinephrine shots, given by my father.

    Chemical- Epinephrine,theophylline and steroids almost daily from birth.

    Emotional-This was complicated by multiple hospitalizations, my parents never came into my room thinking it would upset me to be left again - until it was time to go home. My mother would belittle and embarass me about my nausea from the medications, I remember that from age 2 1/2yr. I was shaky from the meds, and really scared of vomiting. She verbally put me down saying "just get it over with" and other things.

    Tragedies- I witnessed my 2 1/2yr old son be run over by a pick-up truck that blew a tire and came into the yard up by the front step.

    My Dad and brother were killed in a small plane crash when I was 28. My parent's were divorced,I had 2 small children and had to handle all of it myself.

    My mother died a horrible death because of not being diagnosed with her acoustic neuroma 2 years earlier- when I had gone to the doctor with her and asked for an MRI to be done to rule out physical causes for her lack of balance,confusion (from lack of hearing on one side). Doctor didn't do it. When found, it was too slowly killed her by compressing her brain stem.

    Very little support from husband or his family. They have Autism spectrum disorder tendencies and cannot feel sympathy- but are very good at demanding "I should just get over " things. My eldest son has mild cerebral palsy and diagnosed Asperger's Syndrome.

    Passive-aggressive behaviour to extreme amounts by my now ex-husband.

    More...but to the point at hand...after several counselors, anti-depressants and 2 badly trained EMDR therapists, I now have a very effective EMDR trained therapist. It is working! Big break-thru when I found out about Passive-Aggressive Disorder- and saw my husband fit almost EVERY characteristic. With the clarity in that area from the EMDR, I quickly realized and accepted I was not stupid, disrespectful,forgetful, or in any way a bad, sick person.

    Find EMDRIA on the internet...look for a certified therapist in EMDR (my other two were not)..and try it.


  • George Moses, D.O.

    Many people have the symptoms of PTSD but without memory of a qualifying trauma. That leads some physicians to discount the existence of PTSD. Dr. Schwartz accurately explains that some of these can be from repressed memories, but not all are as a result of repressed trauma memories. Important questions include: Have you had any head injuries (falls, fights, accidents, explosions near you, etc)? Have you ever had a severe fever that lasted for several days (such as above 104F)? Thousands of Viet Nam vets had malaria with high fevers that caused brain damage and resulted in PTSD like symptoms. Tell your therapist or physician if you have had these conditions. The treatments are very different and often very effective.


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