Is it Normal to Forget Events from When I was Depressed?

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Reader’s Question

Five years ago I had post-partum depression. During the following year the emotional and psychological abuse I suffered from my ex-husband was at an all-time high. I was fat, worthless and unlovable. After leaving, I had a very difficult time with depression, and feeling completely shut down. I have since recovered, but I only remember some events, and mainly just feelings, from that terrible year of depression. Is this normal?

Psychologist’s Reply

The very short answer is, “absolutely.” First, major depression involves impaired brain functioning. So, it’s commonly the case that depression entails difficulty concentrating and learning (forming new memories). So, we’re not functioning at our best cognitively during episodes of depression or stress. Forming memories requires paying attention to whatever it is that will be remembered, and if our attention is scattered due to having to attend to too much, or is inwardly focused because of our negative mood, we’re unlikely to have many lasting memories about events from that period.

There is also some research indicating that the mood we experienced during formation of memories serves as a cue to recall those memories. So, when we are depressed, it is easier to recall memories that were formed during previous times we felt that way. Now that you are feeling much better, the disconnect from how you felt then probably makes it even less likely you would recall unimportant memories from that period. Hopefully you will never again experience that level of depression to test yourself whether feeling so badly would prompt more specific memories from that terrible year.

The important thing to realize about human memory is that it is imperfect, and it fluctuates from person to person and situation to situation. So, there really is no “normal” when it comes to what memories are formed and which ones are recalled. Sometimes that realization can be unsettling. On the positive side, however, our faulty memory allows us to move beyond very painful periods in our lives by allowing much of it to be forgotten.

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