What Is Dissociative Amnesia?

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What Is Dissociative Amnesia?

Dissociative amnesia is a condition that causes you to forget important information about your life.

It’s typically caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It could either cause you the inability to recall information about specific events or personal information such as aspects of your identity.It’s a form of dissociative disorder. Other dissociative disorders include dissociative identity disorder and depersonalization/derealization disorder.

Dissociative amnesia is a relatively rare condition. In a small study, it was shown only to affect about 1% of men and 2.6% of women. The memory loss could last for minutes, hours, months, or in some rare cases, years. 

In severe cases, a person might completely forget their life history, their family, and friends. They might even have apparently purposeful travel or confused wandering known as dissociative fugue.

Symptoms of Dissociative Amnesia

The main symptom of dissociative amnesia is the inability to recall important autobiographical information. People with this condition either forget specific events or areas in their lives or important information about their identities and those around them.

In many cases of dissociative amnesia, the person with the condition might not be aware that they have suffered a memory loss and will only appear to be confused or flustered. Other symptoms of the disorder include: 

  • Being unable to remember important information about yourself, such as your name and where you live or work 
  • Feeling detached from yourself, your emotions, and the people around you 
  • A disruption of your daily functioning as a result of your memory loss 
  • Forgetting specific periods in your life 

Dissociative amnesia could also be associated with some of the following conditions: 

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How Dissociative Amnesia Is Diagnosed

If you or someone you know is displaying symptoms of dissociative amnesia, it’s crucial to speak to your doctor or healthcare provider to get a definite diagnosis.

For a diagnosis to be made, your doctor will look into your medical history and carry out a physical examination. While there is no medical test that can help identify dissociative amnesia, some medical tests like X-rays and bloodwork will be carried out to rule out other causes of amnesia, such as brain injury or side effects of an illegal substance or drug.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the following criteria must be met for a diagnosis of dissociative amnesia to be made: 

  • Not just forgetting, but being unable to recall important personal information 
  • Being significantly distressed or impaired by the memory loss
  • The memory loss isn’t a result of drug use, a neurological or medical condition, or another psychiatric disorder

Causes of Dissociative Amnesia 

  • Witnessing the sudden death of a loved one 
  • Living through a natural disaster like an earthquake 
  • Being involved in a car accident 
  • Experiencing a near-death situation
  • Living in a war-torn territory
  • Being physically, mentally, or sexually abused 

Types of Dissociative Amnesia 

There are different types of dissociative amnesia, classified according to how severe the memory loss is and what kind of information is lost.

Generalized Amnesia

Here, the memory loss affects significant parts of your life history and identity. You might not remember your name, where you worked, or who your family and friends are. This type is rare.

Localized Amnesia

Localized amnesia, as the name might imply, affects a specific area of a person’s life. For instance, you might not remember details about a particular circumscribed period of time.

In most instances, the memories being blocked out are tied to significant trauma. For example, a person who was abused as a child might block out any childhood memories around the time they were abused. Memories before and after the event will remain intact.

Dissociative Fugue 

Dissociative amnesia is typically caused by witnessing or experiencing traumatic events. Examples of traumatic events that could trigger this condition include: 

Dissociative fugue is a severe form of dissociative amnesia. Here, not only will you forget important details about your life and your identity, but you might purposefully travel or wander in a bewildered way.

A person with this form of amnesia might often travel unexpectedly and take on a whole new identity.

The movie Bourne Identity was inspired by a person named Ansel Bourne, who likely had an early documented case of dissociative fugue in the late 1800s. Ansel had moved to a new town and took up a new identity for two months before realizing something was wrong.

Treatment for Dissociative Amnesia

Treatment for dissociative amnesia focuses on helping a person with the condition recover their memories which often entails assisting them in dealing with the negative impacts of experiencing or witnessing the traumatic events that brought on the amnesia.

It’s believed that with the proper treatment, your recall for your memories will likely come back on their own. Treatment for this condition typically depends on the nature and severity of your symptoms and the presence of co-occurring conditions.

Psychotherapy 

Different forms of psychotherapy are used to treat dissociative amnesia. Some of the most common include: 

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: This focuses on exploring underlying unconscious dynamics contributing to symptoms and distress.
  • Family therapy: This gets the whole family involved in the treatment process. With family therapy, other family members are also taught how to recognize symptoms of the condition and the best methods to help their loved ones deal with them. 
  • Creative therapy: This involves therapy methods like art therapy or music therapy. These forms of therapy allow you to explore difficult emotions and feelings in an environment you feel safe and comfortable in.
  • Hypnotherapy: This may be utilized in the treatment of dissociative amnesia by facilitating different states of consciousness.

Medication 

There’s currently no medication for the treatment of dissociative amnesia. However, your doctor might sometimes prescribe medication to deal with other symptoms that might be associated with the condition. These symptoms typically include anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances.

People with these symptoms might be prescribed anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants.

How to Cope With Dissociative Amnesia 

Unlike other forms of amnesia, memories lost in dissociative amnesia are likely to come back. This could either happen on its own or during treatment for the condition. However, in some cases, memories are never recovered.

Coping with this condition involves understanding the condition, optimizing stress, utilizing supports, and seeking appropriate treatment.

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8 Sources
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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