Do trauma victims actually forget what happened, or is that just an exaggeration used in movies?
A person that experiences a traumatic event without getting traumatized may probably remember the event for quite a while. A person that experiences a traumatic event and becomes traumatized may remember parts of the event vividly and may forget many details of the event or it may forget it altogether.
I imagine that by “trauma victim” you mean the person that gets emotionally hurt by the event, ie., traumatized and with consequences that last a long time.
The wounds or injuries that a traumatic event caused a person can manifest in many different ways, and one of those wounds is the way memories get stored, and how they become either intrusive as in flashbacks, or dissociated as in ‘forgotten.’ Traumatization could even cause amnesia! So, no, it’s not an exaggeration, but it’s not always the case.
Traumatization involves many steps from the moment of perceived danger, to the moment that the danger is over but the person remains in a state of shock, fear, hopelessness, or defeat. Depending on the type of traumatic event, the length, the intensity of the shock, the emotions experienced, the resilience of the person, the capacity to be aware of the incident, etc., is the type of responses and defenses that get activated.
In the case of someone that is able to run away from the danger for example, they would be using the mobilization strategies and therefore their capacity to take in the information of the surroundings gets limited by the tunnel vision they are using as a defense. When someone is having tunnel vision, they only see very specific details of the event, and they will ignore the rest; therefore, the memories will be related to what the brain was focusing on, and will lack a lot of information and detail.
In the case of a person that can’t run or escape from the threat, lets say rape, the brain may be using a more extreme defense and the person may be numb psychically and mentally; in this case, the person’s brain may not be registering what’s happening and the victim may not be even able to remember the face of the rapist. The victim may have very little recollection of the event because the brain is dissociating from reality in order to survive. But that person may remember, for example, the smell of the rapist, and that specific memory of an odor can become intrusive and even carry a phobic reaction like nausea every time the person smells something similar.
There is still a lot to discover on whether the rest of the information that is not remembered is stored somewhere (and repressed), or if it was never ‘collected’ by the brain because it was too busy doing other tasks to protect the life of the person. But no, it’s not an exaggeration that some trauma victims can’t remember almost anything of the event. Memory is adaptive and if the memory will make you less able to survive, it may be better not to have it, especially if they are related to someone you depend on.
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