What is Dissociative Amnesia? Causes, types, treatments

Dissociative amnesia can steal memories from parts of your life or sometimes your entire autobiography. Here’s how it differs from dissociation and how unraveling the trauma underlying the amnesia can help you regain your life and your memories.

Dissociative amnesia: memory loss

Imagine looking in the mirror and not recognizing the person looking back. Or imagine not being able to remember basic information about your life and lifestyle, such as where you live or your partner’s name.

Does it sound like something out of a suspense novel or thriller? What’s known as dissociative amnesia is more than just a plot twist. In the most extreme case, the condition can rob you of all your memories. (Here are possible causes of memory problems that aren’t Alzheimer’s.)

Or you may remember certain periods of your life or parts of a traumatic event. Usually, people with dissociative amnesia have a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). (This is how childhood trauma puts you at higher risk for PTSD.)

“Dissociative amnesia, also known as psychogenic amnesia, is one or more episodes of inability to remember important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that cannot be explained by normal forgetfulness,” says Rashmi Parmar, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry in Newark, California.

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Dissociative amnesia vs dissociation

Dissociation is feeling disconnected from your environment and the world around you. You may feel that you are detached from or even outside of your body, or that things around you are not real.

Dissociative amnesia is a form of dissociative disorder. People with dissociative disorder can feel cut off from the current world for hours or days. In rare cases, it can take weeks or months.

This amnesia is in stark contrast to episodes of dissociation that can occur in otherwise healthy people, says Dr. parmar. “An easy example is when a person drifts off into a daydreaming episode and loses track of time.”

In dissociative amnesia, however, the memory loss usually comes on suddenly and can last for minutes, days, or even longer, she says.

Most people (75 percent) experience at least one dissociative episode in their lives in which they sleep in or feel detached from their bodies. Of these, only two percent will be diagnosed with a dissociative disorder such as dissociative amnesia, according to NAMI. Women are more often diagnosed with a dissociative disorder than men.

In general, the symptoms of dissociative disorder can include an out-of-body experience, such as feeling like you’re watching a movie (known as depersonalization); a feeling of detachment or emotional numbness; a blurred sense of identity; and feeling that the world around you is not real (known as derealization).

The other main types of dissociative disorders are dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder). This is characterized by the emergence of different personalities taking over.

And depersonalization-derealization disorder is characterized by the persistent feeling of being detached from your body and seeing things happening from the outside.

This involuntary response to emotional stress can also lead to depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems.

Types of Dissociative Amnesia

There are three types of dissociative amnesia:

localized: You cannot remember events that occurred at a specific time.

generalized: You experience complete amnesia and are unable to say who you are or to remember anything that happened in your life. These cases are rare.

Fugue: You can leave your home and go to unknown parts and forget your personal information. In cases lasting weeks or months, you may assume a new identity.

When dissociative amnesia is accompanied by dissociative fugue, people can flee from their usual environment – home, school or work.

“This is characterized by amnesia with [the] inability to remember your past and the assumption of a new partial or full identity,” says Dr. parmar. “It also starts suddenly and often involves complicated travel.”

(Here are the medical reasons your short-term memory is getting worse.)

What Causes Dissociative Amnesia?

Anyone can experience dissociative amnesia, but it is more likely in people with certain risk factors than others. “It can occur in all age groups, but it’s more difficult to induce in younger children because of their limited ability to articulate subjective experiences,” says Dr. parmar.

When a person with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is reminded of a past trauma, it can put them in a dissociative state similar to the one they experienced during the initial trauma, says John H. Krystal, MD, professor of translational research and chair of the department of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

These memories come in the form of flashbacks that are common in PTSD.

Or “sometimes these individuals seem to be more sensitive to life’s stresses or unclear memories of the trauma,” explains Dr. Krystal, who is also chief of psychiatry at Yale New Haven Hospital.

Dissociative amnesia and the brain

What exactly goes on in the brains of people with dissociative amnesia is not entirely clear. But studies of drugs that cause memory loss and other symptoms of dissociation have shed some light on the matter, says Dr. crystal.

There seems to be a connection between the frontal temporal lobe of the brain and other parts of the brain. The temporal lobe controls the production and maintenance of memory. (This is what your brain looks like with PTSD.)

“With dissociative amnesia, you don’t have access to a memory that is so shocking,” he says. “While you wish you could do it on another level, you avoid it.”

There are times when people can remember parts of a story, but not the whole story, adds Dr. Crystal to it. “What you can’t remember can really keep you from moving forward, and instead you’re the victim of fragments of memories.”

For example, someone who has been sexually abused may not remember the whole story, just bits and pieces. Because of this, “they may have a persistent distrust of romantic or sexual partners, and for reasons they don’t understand, make them extremely uncomfortable in a romantic situation,” says Dr. crystal. This likely poisons relationships and prevents them from moving on, he says.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Dissociative Amnesia

These people may seek help because of memory problems, anxiety, and depression that may accompany them, or even problems in relationships that they can’t overcome, says Dr. crystal. Making a diagnosis involves ruling out other possible physical causes of the fakes, such as brain trauma, epilepsy, stroke, or medication side effects, he explains.

Treatment usually involves a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs, says Dr. crystal. There is no specific drug treatment for dissociative amnesia. “Time is useful and so is therapy,” he explains. Sometimes relaxation methods such as hypnosis or meditation can help people feel safe enough to access these painful memories.

dr. Parmar says there are also specific forms of therapy that can help people overcome dissociative amnesia and prevent it from coming back. “Cognitive behavioral therapy can play a role in helping identify and address underlying cognitive distortions,” she says. This time-limited type of therapy helps change the way you deal with stress and stressors.

Some people can recover spontaneously, she says. “Removing the triggering stressor and providing a safe environment to process the trauma or conflict can promote early recovery,” says Dr. parmar. “In dissociative fugue states, the person will be able to remember their past and resume their original identity once restored.”

The last word

With dissociative amnesia, you forget who you are. It can last for hours or – in rare cases – months. People with a history of trauma or abuse, especially as a child, are at a higher risk of developing the mental illness. In general, the outlook for people with dissociative amnesia is good. They can often restore their memories without treatment. If you experience episodes, talk to a doctor about which course of treatment is best for you.

Then here are small habits to improve your mental health.

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