Experiencing a panic attack can be an intensely overwhelming and distressing event. While panic attacks are psychological events that can often be addressed with therapy, the effect they have on the body can not only feel very physical, but actually have physiological and psychological consequences beyond the attack itself.
One example is memory loss. Though severe memory loss is rare, partial memory loss is a common issue for those with panic attacks, from basic forgetfulness to missing or inaccessible memories.
What Causes Memory Loss?
There are actually several mechanisms for memory loss in those that struggle with panic attacks, increasing the risk in those that struggle with them. These include the following.
Acute Stress Response and Memory Function
The body’s acute stress response, often referred to as the “fight or flight” response, plays a significant role in the onset of a panic attack. This response involves a surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones, such as cortisol, which prepare the body to face an immediate threat. While this response is essential for survival, it can adversely affect brain regions involved in memory processing, such as the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.
- Hippocampal Function – The hippocampus is crucial for forming new memories and retrieving existing ones. High levels of cortisol, released during a panic attack, can impair hippocampal function, leading to difficulties in forming new memories and retrieving existing ones.
- Prefrontal Cortex Function – The prefrontal cortex is involved in working memory and executive functions. During a panic attack, the overwhelming stress can disrupt the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, leading to issues with attention, decision-making, and memory retrieval.
In theory, those that experience more severe or more frequent panic attacks could also be more at risk for these issues.
Emotional Overload and Memory Encoding
Panic attacks are characterized by intense emotional experiences, including fear, anxiety, and a sense of impending doom. The emotional overload can interfere with the process of memory encoding, which is the initial step in creating new memories.
- Attentional Narrowing – During a panic attack, the individual’s focus narrows to the source of threat or discomfort, leading to a phenomenon known as attentional narrowing. This focus shift can result in a lack of attention to other details and experiences, making it difficult to encode these into memory.
- Emotional Hijacking – The amygdala, a brain region involved in emotional processing, becomes hyperactive during a panic attack. This hyperactivity can “hijack” cognitive resources needed for memory encoding, leading to gaps in memory for events occurring during or around the time of the attack.
When someone struggles with a panic attack, their thoughts, feelings, and more are all focused on the experience of the panic attack and its aftermath. While some people may still be able to function and pay some attention to the world around them, that attention may not be enough to encode into memory.
Sleep Disruption and Memory Consolidation
Quality sleep is vital for memory consolidation, the process by which short-term memories are stabilized into long-term storage. Panic attacks, especially those occurring at night, can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insufficient REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, where significant memory consolidation occurs.
- Sleep Architecture Changes – Panic attacks can alter the architecture of sleep, reducing the duration and quality of REM sleep. This disruption can impair the consolidation of memories formed during the day, leading to difficulties in recalling these memories later.
- Anxiety and Rumination – The anxiety and rumination that often follow a panic attack can further interfere with sleep quality, compounding the effects on memory consolidation. The cyclical nature of anxiety, sleep disruption, and memory impairment can create a challenging pattern to break.
The mechanisms contributing to memory loss in individuals experiencing panic attacks are multifaceted, involving acute stress responses, emotional overload, and sleep disruption. These factors can impair memory encoding, consolidation, and retrieval, leading to gaps in memory and difficulties in recalling events related to or occurring during a panic attack.
However, it should be noted that memory loss of any kind could also be due to other factors. It is important to always seek out advice from specialists to determine the cause of any memory loss, and what the best approach is to address it. For help with anxiety and panic attacks, please reach out to Flourish Psychology, today.