How PTSD Can Affect Learning

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can occur after experiencing a traumatic event. People who have this condition often experience symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, dissociation, flashbacks, and hypervigilance. The condition may also increase a person's risk for problems with learning.

Such learning difficulties can contribute to issues in educational settings. However, learning difficulties can also affect memory and attention, which can lead to problems in many areas of your everyday life.

Learning Difficulties Associated With PTSD

PTSD can contribute to a number of different types of learning difficulties. Some of the areas that might be affected include:


Compared with people who don't have it, people with PTSD tend to have problems with remembering:

  • Words (verbal memory)
  • Facts and other important information, such as appointments
  • Specific details of past events, especially with regard to traumatic events


PTSD can also contribute to problems with attention, making it difficult to concentrate on information. They may also have difficulty concentrating and be easily distracted, which makes it hard for them to pay attention when doing tasks. Difficulty concentrating is one of a number of common symptoms of PTSD.

One study found that people with PTSD have problems with reading comprehension due to problems with attention and concentration.

To compensate for this, people with the condition tended to re-read the text, resulting in significantly longer response times. This inability to concentrate may be due to being distracted by thoughts related to the trauma and ever-present worries about danger.


It also is not uncommon for people with PTSD to experience difficulties when it comes to solving problems. Other symptoms of the condition, such as avoidance and attention difficulties, may contribute to these challenges. In one study, higher scores on measures of PTSD symptoms were linked to worse problems solving skills.

Executive Function

PTSD can also contribute to problems with executive functioning. Executive functions are the mental skills (including self-control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility) that are needed to plan, manage, and carry out everyday behaviors.

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Why PTSD Makes Learning Difficult

There are a number of reasons why people with PTSD may have these learning difficulties.

Anxiety and Depression

When you're feeling very anxious, it can interfere with the way your brain encodes information into your memory. That can make it harder for you to remember minor details.

High anxiety levels may also limit your ability to notice things that are going on around you or interfere with your ability to focus on a task. This can happen when you feel so anxious about being anxious that that becomes all or most of what you can think about.

Sleep Problems

People with PTSD often have difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep. If that sounds like you, and you're less alert during the day as a result, you're likely to be less able to remember things and focus your attention effectively.

Substance Use

Substance use is not uncommon among people who have PTSD. People may utilize substances as a way to cope with the distressing symptoms and memories of trauma. In addition to other risks associated with drug and alcohol use, taking substances can also contribute to problems with memory and attention.

Coping With Learning Problems

If you have PTSD and are having problems with your memory or ability to focus your attention, there are a number of techniques that you can use to remember and focus better. You may also benefit from learning techniques for controlling your attention, such as mindfulness.

Seek PTSD Treatment

If you think you may have one or more learning difficulties in addition to PTSD, and you don't yet have a healthcare provider who can work with you to set up a treatment plan, it may be time to look for one. If you're not sure how to do this, ​there are several websites that offer free searches. Use them to help you locate mental health providers in your area who treat people with PTSD.

And here's some good news: Your PTSD therapy to reduce your symptoms may also help with any learning difficulties you have.

It's been shown that people who are successfully treated for their PTSD often find that other areas of their lives improve as well.

Practice Trauma-Informed Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice that involves becoming more aware of internal thoughts and feelings while focusing attention on the present. It is often recommended as a strategy to improve attention and there are a number of mindfulness-based treatments that have shown promise for helping symptoms of PTSD.

However, some research has found that mindfulness can actually worsen feelings of anxiety and cause distress for people who have experienced trauma. One 2019 study found that around a quarter of people who meditate have experienced adverse effects ranging from increased anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and dissociation.

Practicing trauma-informed mindfulness or working with a therapist who is trauma-sensitive may be helpful. Trauma-informed mindfulness incorporates techniques such as anchoring, self-regulation, and grounding strategies that minimize the potential for increased anxiety and dissociation.

Train Your Memory

Memory-boosting strategies can also help combat some of the problems with learning, memory, and attention that are connected to PTSD. Such strategies that may help you combat problems with learning and improve your ability to recall information include:

  • Memorization techniques such as mnemonics
  • Using online memory tools such as notes and reminders
  • Rehearsing important information
  • Focusing on one task at time

A Word From Verywell

PTSD can lead to problems with learning that can affect many different areas of your life. In addition to seeking professional treatment for your symptoms, finding ways to improve you memory may be helpful. If you are concerned about the symptoms you are experiencing, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. They can recommend treatments and self-help strategies that can improve your ability to function in your everyday life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does PTSD affect memory?

    The exact ways that trauma creates memory disturbances are not entirely understood, but a number of factors may play a part. Dissociation from trauma can create some memory problems. Stress hormones may also lead to different types of cognitive impairment. And trauma may also impact areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, that play a part in the formation of new memories.

  • Why does PTSD affect attention?

    PTSD can cause hypervigilance, a type of attentional bias where people pay excessive attention to cues in the environment that are perceived as threats. In addition to making it difficult to pay attention to other information, this hypervigilance also causes people to be preoccupied with reminders of the trauma, which plays a part in perpetuating the condition.

  • How does PTSD, anxiety, and depression affect learning skills?

    Like PTSD, anxiety, and depression can also affect aspects of learning including working memory, motivation, and attention. Symptoms of anxiety and depression often occur at the same time as PTSD, which can have a significant detrimental impact on learning.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.