Safety Planning for Non-Status Immigrants, Refugees, and Refugee Claimants Facing Intimate Partner, Domestic, or Sexualized Violence

Can one experience memory loss following an abusive relationship?

Safety Resource Blog Week Seven


The answer is YES! While the effects of abuse can manifest differently in everyone, our brains can be affected by both physical and psychological abuse. In the aftermath of an abusive relationship, many survivors find themselves grappling with trauma-based memory loss. Trauma-based memory loss in the context of abusive relationships is a complex and often misunderstood phenomenon that goes unrecognized and untreated.

In this resource, we will discuss the effects of physical and psychological abuse on the memory of survivors and the journey to healing.


What is Trauma-Based Memory Loss?

Trauma-based memory loss, also known as dissociative amnesia, is a condition where a person loses memories of events, people, or periods of time, typically following a traumatic experience. In the context of abusive relationships, this memory loss is a protective mechanism employed by the brain to cope with overwhelming painful and traumatic memories. Some of this memory loss is the brain’s way of temporarily helping you cope with trauma, while some of it may be permanent due to severe brain injury or deep psychological trauma.

These types of memory loss can be referred to as dissociative amnesia, trauma-based memory loss, or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), depending on the type of abuse and its severity.


How Does Trauma-Based Memory Loss Manifest in Abusive Relationships?

Survivors who endure repeated emotional or physical trauma often experience gaps in their memories as a way to protect themselves from the emotional pain associated with those experiences or due to brain injuries that impact the brain’s normal functions. As a result, survivors may find themselves unable to recall traumatic incidents accurately, which can lead to their experiences being discredited by society, the judicial system, or the healthcare system. Survivors may even start to doubt themselves and their experiences when they can’t remember details.


Memory Loss in Physical Trauma:

Memory loss resulting from physical trauma can significantly affect ones memory, especially if brain damage occurs as a result of the injury. When the brain is subjected to physical trauma, such as a blow to the head, strangulation, or physical abuse, the impact can disrupt the brain’s normal functioning, leading to memory loss. Physical trauma can also induce post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can cause temporary memory loss as a coping mechanism for the traumatic event that caused the injury. The severity of the injury typically determines the extent and duration of the memory loss.

To learn more about Traumatic Brain Injury, please see Concussions in the Spotlight: Supporting Survivors with Traumatic Brain Injuries.

Memory Loss in Emotional or Psychological Trauma:

Memory loss resulting from emotional or psychological trauma can significantly affect your memory. This loss of memory is a defense mechanism the brain develops to protect itself from psychological damage. When individuals experience severe emotional distress, such as that caused by abuse, violence, or emotionally traumatic event, their brain may respond by blocking out the painful memories.

Memory loss in emotional or psychological trauma is often a result of dissociation, where the mind disconnects from the traumatic experience to shield itself from emotional overload. This can lead to various forms of amnesia:


Localized Amnesia

Forgetting all events during a specific time frame, often related to periods of intense abuse.


Selective Amnesia

Remembering parts of an event but not the full experience.


Generalized Amnesia

Forgetting details about one’s entire life, which is rare but possible in extreme cases.


Systematized Amnesia

Losing memory related to a particular person, place, or event associated with the abuse.

Emotional or psychological trauma can also lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), manifesting as flashbacks and intrusive thoughts about the trauma.


Navigating the Road to Healing:

Recovery from trauma-induced memory loss can be a lengthy journey, taking several weeks, months, or even years to fully heal. If you suspect that you or someone you love may be experiencing trauma-induced memory loss, here are some symptoms to look out for:

  • If you find yourself relying on alcohol or substances to cope.
  • If you feel emotionally disconnected and numb.
  • If you are plagued by flashbacks, nightmares, or unsettling memories.
  • If you struggle to function effectively at home or work.
  • If you are overwhelmed by feelings of fear, anxiety, or depression.
  • If you experience difficulty sleeping or suffer from insomnia.
  • If you notice physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, or muscle tension without a clear medical explanation.

Recognizing these symptoms is the first step towards seeking support and healing. Remember, you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. Reach out to trusted friends, family members, or mental health professionals who can offer guidance, understanding, and assistance on your path to recovery. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or these symptoms, it’s important to seek support from a health professional who can provide appropriate diagnosis and treatment. Therapeutic interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), trauma-focused therapy, and neurorehabilitation can play a pivotal role in mitigating the impact of memory loss and cognitive deficits in survivors of domestic abuse.

Remember Trauma-induced memory loss can be a challenging and distressing experience, but with the right support and interventions, healing and recovery are possible.

We call for the development and expansion of specialized supports for survivors who have experienced TBIs as a result of intimate partner or domestic violence. Survivors of IPV who have experienced strangulation, for example, require specialized care and supports. At this time, survivors in the Lower Mainland can access the Strangulation Clinic, offered by the Fraser Health Authority in Surrey. Here, survivors receive assessment, documentation, counselling, and other treatment services for their injuries, but these services need to be available province-wide, and in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities as well.

To learn more about supporting survivors with Traumatic Brain Injuries, please visit


This resource is for informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for medical advice. We recognize that everyone’s situation is unique, and the content provided is intended to offer a general understanding of abuse and its effects. It is always advisable to seek guidance from qualified medical professionals or specialists tailored to your specific circumstances.

If you or someone you love is in need of support, please contact the Battered Women Support Services Crisis Line:

Call toll-free: 1-855-687-1868
Metro Vancouver: 604-687-1867