What is Dissociative Amnesia?

Dissociative amnesia is an uncommon disorder causing sufferers to forget important information and experiences. This is usually brought on by traumatic experiences. Read on to find out more about this do

Dissociative Amnesia: What Does It Mean?

Dissociative amnesia is a condition that causes a person to forget certain memories, information and experiences. The memories forgotten are usually associated with trauma or stressful situations. As well as forgetting the memories around the trauma/stress, they may also or instead forget important information about their identity. The type of memory that is lost is described as autobiographical memory.

This condition is part of a group of conditions called dissociative disorders.

Amnesia Definition

Amnesia is medically defined as an impairment to or loss of memory. It can cause issues with either recalling past memories or creating new memories. It doesn’t normally affect people’s intelligence or their skills, such as the ability to read or write or ride a bike.

Stats: How Many Suffer from this Disorder?

The Cleveland Clinic believes that dissociative amnesia affects around 1% of men and 2.6% of women in the general population. Other research suggests that the condition may affect up to 7% of the US population. Some psychologists believe that dissociative amnesia is actually more prevalent but is under-diagnosed.

Rates of the population with dissociative amnesia tend to go up after a natural disaster, war, or other such traumatic experiences. It’s believed that up to 7% of people will experience at least one episode of dissociative amnesia in their lifetime, although they may not be diagnosed as such.

Of the women diagnosed with dissociative amnesia, 68% of them have experienced a sexual trauma.

What Causes Dissociative Amnesia?

Psychogenic Causes

Dissociative amnesia is caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic or stressful event, either recently or in the past. Experiencing rape or sexual abuse is a common cause for women diagnosed with the condition.

It is believed that ‘blocking out’ memories of the traumatic or stressful event is the coping mechanism of the brain. Likewise, the brain may ‘block out’ any other memories associated with the event or time period, resulting in a loss of additional memories.

The most common psychogenic cause of the condition is trauma from witnessing a loved one commit suicide or being murdered. 38% of all people diagnosed with the condition developed it after undergoing these experiences.

Research has indicated that there may be a genetic element of the development of the condition, as many people diagnosed with dissociative amnesia also have relatives with the condition or a similar condition.

Acquired Brain Injuries

The definition of dissociative amnesia means that it can not be attributed to a brain injury or any other such neurological condition. Dissociative amnesia is thought to be based on an over-corrective defense mechanism, instead of physical damage to memory related parts of the brain.

Signs and Symptoms of Dissociative Amnesia

What are the Common Behaviors/Characteristics?

The main symptom of this condition is memory loss. There are three different types of memory loss that a person suffering from this condition may have. They may show signs of just one type, two types or all three. They are:

Localized memory loss: forgetting a specific event or a period of time

Selective memory loss: forgetting certain parts about an event or period of time, or forgetting certain events within a period of time

Generalized memory loss: a complete loss of identity and life history.

The period of memory loss can range from minutes through to decades. It may also involve forgetting people and places.

Another common symptom of the condition is feeling detached from oneself. This could be described as feeling in a dream-like state. It can also affect the ability to feel any emotions or have an emotional response to either a present situation or a past situation.

A person with dissociative amnesia may struggle with their perception of others. People may appear ‘blurry’ or ‘unreal’. There may a general sense of detachment from other people and a sense that others aren’t quite there.

People with the condition can have an altered sense of identity. They can struggle with a sense of self or knowing who they really are.

Stress can be a huge problem for people with dissociative amnesia. They may have extreme issues with dealing with any kind of stressful situation, whether that’s in their own personal life or in work situations. This could involve either overreacting or an inability to react, as well as many other improper or unhealthy behaviors.

Testing: What are the Diagnostic Criteria Per the DSM 5?

“A. An inability to recall important autobiographic information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is inconsistent with ordinary forgetting. Note: Dissociative Amnesia most often consists of localized or selective amnesia for a specific event or events; or generalized amnesia for identity and life history.

B. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

C. The disturbance is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., alcohol or other drug abuse, a medication) or a neurological or other medical condition (e.g., partial complex seizures, transient global amnesia, sequelae of a closed head injury/traumatic brain injury, other neurological condition).

D. The disturbance is not better explained by dissociative identity disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder, somatic symptom disorder, or major or mild neurocognitive disorder.”

Dissociative Fugue

Dissociative fugue is a rare version of dissociative amnesia that occurs whenever a person forgets all, or mostly all, of their own identity and life history. This can include their own name, who their friends are, where they live etc.

One of the most common ways someone with dissociative fugue will get noticed is after suddenly ‘appearing’ in a new place. People with this condition can travel to new places, sometimes a long distance away from their hometown. They will often have no idea where they have come from or how they got there.

The period of dissociative fugue may last anywhere from hours up to years. The sufferer may take on a new identity, make new friends and have a career. Often other people will have no idea that their friend, loved one or colleague suffers from the condition. It usually only becomes noticeable when the sufferer tries to recall their past, which can cause great distress and trigger other mental health issues such as depression, aggression and/or suicidal thoughts.

The condition is estimated to affect .2% of the population. Having dissociative amnesia does not that mean that one will develop dissociative fugue.

Dissociative Amnesia and Other Conditions

Dissociative Amnesia vs Dissociative Identity Disorder

Although the names of these two conditions are very similar, they are actually very different conditions. Dissociative Identity Disorder was formally known as multiple personality disorder and is described as having two or more very distinct personalities. These seemingly different personalities are actually fragments of a person’s identity, rather than completely different identities.

Like dissociative amnesia, one of the main causes of dissociative identity disorder is experiencing trauma. The most similar symptom between the two conditions is the loss of memory, however, with dissociative identity disorder the memory is usually fragmented and divided between the two or more personalities.

Related Conditions

People with dissociative amnesia are more likely to also be diagnosed with acute stress disorder and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. This is due to the common cause between the conditions of stress or experiencing a trauma. The conditions are often diagnosed together and will be treated similarly.

Sleep disorders are also related to dissociative amnesia and may include symptoms such as night terrors, sleepwalking, and confusion.

Dissociative Amnesia In Adults/Children

Much like in adults, dissociative amnesia in children is often caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event or extremely stressful experiences. To block out the trauma, the child will dissociate from the memories and either block them out completely or forget elements surrounding the event/events.

A child with the condition may sometimes appear to be in a ‘trance’ or seem ‘spaced out’. They can become very confused or frustrated when asked about the past or pressed on certain subjects. Children are believed to be more susceptible to dissociative disorders because they have not yet developed the coping skills necessary.

Example Case of Dissociative Amnesia

The following case study is written by David Woo, MD and describes a patient who was diagnosed with dissociative amnesia.

“Mrs. CP is a 64-year-old widowed Filipino woman who came to see a psychiatrist at an outpatient mental health clinic. She had been in treatment intermittently since 1998 for depression and anxiety. Her symptoms included anxious mood, insomnia, hypervigilant behavior, tearfulness, poor concentration, and feelings of palpitations.

She reported that over the past year she had been more forgetful and distractible, forgetting where she had placed her keys, pocket cash, and other items. She would forget to get off the bus at a familiar stop and could not remember to purchase needed items at the grocery store.

Of greater concern, she had left the stove on several times and had limited recollection of this. Mrs. CP’s behavior included unusual incidents such as leaving rotting bananas in the closet and going back into the shower fully clothed after she had just bathed and dressed herself. Because of these behaviors, her younger son and a close friend moved in with her to assist and monitor her behavior…

Mrs. CP was born in the Philippines and had had a turbulent childhood and a severe eating disorder early on…As a teenager, Mrs. CP had a “nervous breakdown” due to depression, and her father consulted with a psychiatrist. ..While she was in her 20s, she made three attempts to end her life…She described feeling driven by the stress of being in an “inescapable, abusive marriage.” Her husband was often drunk, physically abusive, tortured the children—sometimes with an ax—and used them for ‘target practice.’”

How to Deal/Coping With Dissociative Amnesia

Look out for These Complications/Risk Factors

One of the major risk factors with this condition is suffering from flashbacks. These can often be so traumatic that they lead to dangerous feelings and thoughts, such as self-harming and suicidal thinking. It is extremely important to seek immediate medical attention in these circumstances.

For people suffering from the condition, there is higher chance of also developing other conditions such a personality disorders, sleep disorders and depression. Alcoholism and drug addiction can also be risks so it’s important to avoid all or frequent use of drugs and alcohol. Seek medical treatment if worried and always be open and honest about usage and symptoms when speaking to medical professionals.

Men with dissociative amnesia also have a higher chance of becoming involved in the criminal system and going to jail. It is believed this is due to being at risk of aggressive behavior.

Dissociative Amnesia Treatment

Treatment for dissociative amnesia is usually a combination of medications and therapy. The type of therapy will depend on the person’s symptoms and severity, but the most common therapies used are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy.

Some therapists will also recommend family therapy, depending on the cause of the condition. Creative therapies can also be a very helpful tool for this condition, such as music or art therapy.

Possible Medications for Dissociative Amnesia

At present, there are no medications designed specifically for dissociative amnesia. There are also no medications that will treat memory loss or prevent memory loss. Instead, patients with dissociative amnesia are often prescribed medications that will help with the symptoms, such as anti-depressants for depression, medication for anxiety or sleeping pills for insomnia.

Home Remedies to help Dissociative Amnesia

There aren’t any particular home remedies recommended for dissociative amnesia without first having recommendation and approval from a doctor or mental health professional. Once you have been fully assessed, they may recommend trying meditation and other relaxation techniques.

Living with Dissociative Amnesia

For most people with dissociative amnesia, it will not be a lifelong condition. In fact, in most cases, full memory will return and the symptoms of the condition will disappear. For others, the memories may never come back and they will need to learn coping mechanisms and skills for dealing with memory loss.

The sooner a person seeks treatment for the condition, the better the prognosis so it’s important to speak a doctor or therapist as soon as possible.

Insurance Coverage for Dissociative Amnesia

Each insurance company will have their policies on dissociative amnesia and other dissociative disorders. Ask your insurance company for their policies on these conditions and mental health treatment.

How to Find a Therapist

What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?

Look for a mental health professional who has experience in working with people with this disorder, or other similar dissociative disorders. The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation have a searchable database of therapists. You can find the link below, under the resources section.

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

Before meeting a potential therapist, you may want to write down some questions to ask them. As well as questions that are specific to the condition and symptoms you’re experiencing, you can also ask them more personal questions. For example, you may have certain personality types you’d prefer to work with or certain types of therapy you prefer. You may also want to ask for reviews from previous patients with similar conditions.

Dissociative Amnesia Resources and Support Helpline

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation: https://www.isst-d.org/default.asp?contentID=18

National Alliance on Mental Illness: 800-950-NAMI     info@nami.org   TEXT “NAMI” TO 741741












author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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