The Difference Between Negative Memories and PTSD

Mar 18, 2024
Lucas Hanft
Everyone has to process trauma at some point in their lives. What separates someone with PTSD from someone who doesn't is how they deal with those psychic scars.

Bad stuff happens. 

Excuse us for our bluntness, but sometimes a fact is so simple, so universally accepted, it wouldn’t make sense to put it any other way.  No one’s life is so blessed that they get out of it unscathed.  We all undergo traumas, all the time.  It’s inevitable — an essential part of the human drama in which we all play a part.

Sometimes the traumas are so personal, so specific to you and your experiences, that it’s hard — if not impossible — to find someone who can relate to them.  (In terms of finding that someone, though, we have some ideas).  Sometimes the traumas are shared among many people — your family or your friend group.  Sometimes the wounds linger, open and suppurative, for years, or even decades; the scars might be permanent, the sores never fully healed.

Traumas like these — ones that are so extreme, so dramatic, that they remain fresh in the psyche for years, or even a lifetime — often result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Many of you have probably heard of PTSD, or even seen depicted in movies or TV shows about the ravages of war.  By some estimates, up to 18% of veterans experience PTSD.  That being said though, military service is not a diagnostic prerequisite for PTSD — indeed, the triggers are quite diverse: for instance, individuals who have undergone or witnessed an assault or abuse (sexual or otherwise) might experience PTSD.  In fact any event that is shocking or terrifying or dangerous could be the root cause of this disorder. 

With such a wide range of triggers — and given that everyone has experienced some kind of trauma in their lives -- the question becomes, “How do you know if you have PTSD or not?”


PTSD is a psychiatric disorder triggered by a singular traumatic event, or by a series of them, that continues to have a dramatic impact on the patient’s psychological well-being long after the event (or events) have concluded.  You continued to feel stressed, afraid, anxious, paranoid, jumpy: things that once were innocuous suddenly seem to pose a threat to your well-being.  Your life — and the lives of those around you — continue to be profoundly affected by the trauma in question. 

There is no way to classify in advance the kinds of events that result in your typical, everyday kind of trauma and those that could cause the onset of PTSD: in many ways, it depends on the individual more than it does the precipitating incident.  For example, if two people are in a car crash, one of them might PTSD while the other manages to process the trauma quickly and without any psychiatric intervention.  The perceived severity of the inciting trauma has little to no bearing on whether or not a diagnosis of PTSD is justified; it is the response to the trauma that is the critical diagnostic criteria. 

This isn’t to diminish anyone’s pain — or to make PTSD sound like the product of a characterological deficit — but rather to alert you to the fact that everyone’s way of dealing with these kinds of incidents is different, and some people are naturally more prone to developing PTSD than others.


Though movies rarely reflect the true nature of psychological disorders, in the case of PTSD, some of the things you might have observed watching war movies on Netflix might be instructive.  For example, flashbacks to the event — maybe the most common filmic trope when it comes to depictions of PTSD — are a very common symptom of the disorder, as are nightmares. In fact, sleeping disorders often go hand-in-hand with PTSD.

Memories and flashbacks might be triggered by sounds or images that remind the individual of the trauma they endured: a classic example (and another filmic trope) is a veteran being triggered by sounds that recall the report of gunfire, like firecrackers or a backfiring car. Indeed the memories of the precipitating trauma often prove so haunting -- and so prevalent — that people make an effort (conscious or not) to suppress them, or to avoid them as much as possible; they might avoid people and places they associate with the event as well.

People suffering from PTSD might also find themselves increasingly isolated, overcome by a sense of detachment and alienation.  They tend to lose interest in activities and hobbies they once enjoyed, potentially depriving them of even more opportunities for socialization, and increasing their feelings of isolation.

There’s usually a profound impact on people’s emotional well-being as well: those with PTSD might feel angry and irritable, and have outbursts of rage; they might feel anxious or sad or worried, or emotionally numb; they might also feel guilt (which is especially common among those who have PTSD as a result of sexual traumas).  They often feel negatively about people in general — including themselves; a generalized sense of hopelessness is not uncommon among people with PTSD.  Trouble concentrating or newfound issues with memory can be another symptom. Often these emotional symptoms manifest themselves physically — for example, people with PTSD often complain of headaches and stomach aches.  They might also be hyper-vigilant, and startle easily.



People who are struggling to process or heal from any kind of trauma might experience some of the symptoms discussed above.  But that doesn't mean they’re necessarily suffering from PTSD. 

As is often the case, distinguishing the two camps is largely a matter of degree. People who are suffering from PTSD experience these symptoms for a protracted period of time; in order to be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms must last at least a month.  In fact people with PTSD might have symptoms that last several years, or even decades in extreme cases. 

Though anyone might feel withdrawn and alienated while recovering from a trauma, those with PTSD are affected to the point that their work and social lives are dramatically impacted.  They can’t function the way they once did in those settings, and struggle to get their lives back under control


Though there are drugs that can help with PTSD, making you feel less anxious, tense, or depressed, pharmacological intervention cannot help you process the trauma you've undergone and help you begin to heal the psychic wounds that have been inflicted upon you.  For that the best — and only solution – is therapy. 

At Rappore we pride ourselves on treating people with severe psychological disorders, including PTSD.  Our team of therapists and psychopharmacologists have years of experience helping people with these kinds of conditions, and are on call to begin helping more.  If you're interested in seeing a therapist, take our online survey and start the process today.