Dissociative Amnesia

A health condition in which you cannot remember certain information about yourself is called dissociative amnesia. In most cases, the memories are upsetting or distressing events. This condition usually happens due to severe or long-term trauma (including abuse, neglect, any kind of violation, and others). Fortunately, this disease is treatable, which means people can regain their memories and improve their quality of life.

What is Dissociative Amnesia?

When your mind blocks important memories about yourself, it is called dissociative amnesia. The most common reason why it occurs is to protect you from traumatic, unpleasant, or certain distressing experiences. It is important to not confuse simply forgetting and this condition. Once you have dissociative amnesia, you still have these memories you just cannot access them.

The main causes of this amnesia type include war, abuse, and natural disasters. Those who experience this condition are at higher risk of self-harm and suicidal behaviors.

In addition, it is advised immediately to get emergency care if you experience disturbing thoughts about harming yourself (such as suicidal thoughts).

  • Dial 988 (Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (United States)
  • Call 911 in case you notice immediate danger of harming yourself.

Dissociation

This term means all your experiences that are based on brain abilities and processes that work together. Examples include:

  • Perception (including hearing and vision)
  • Motor ability
  • Behavior
  • Identity
  • Emotions
  • Consciousness
  • Memory

Furthermore, dissociation is considered a defense mechanism that helps to protect your brain. Therefore, when dissociation provokes memory loss (amnesia) happens dissociative amnesia.

How Dissociative Amnesia Works?

You should know how memory works before understanding this amnesia type. An individual uses autobiographical memory when he/she thinks back on events in their lives. It can be associated with a library in which every memory is a book. Moreover, the brain goes through certain processes to create memories that fill that library. Examples include:

  • Encoding – Brain creating the memory
  • Storage – In this stage, the brain stores the memory in the library.
  • Retrieval – During this stage, the brain accesses the library to recall a memory.

Dissociative Amnesia Types

  • Retrograde – In such cases, this condition negatively affects the ability to find old memories. In other words, it is like an error that does not allow you to access or check specific memories.
  • Anterograde – The second form of dissociative amnesia is less common and it occurs when memory loss (amnesia) blocks the formation or storage of new memories.

How Common is Dissociative Amnesia?

Approximately 1.8% of people experience dissociative amnesia worldwide, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Symptoms

Memory loss is usually the primary symptom of this condition. However, it may appear in different forms. In most cases, people experience just one form while others may notice multiple. For example:

  • Localized – In such cases, amnesia negatively affects everything but for a short specific time in your life.
  • Selective – Memory loss impacts either one or all events in a specific period in your life. Healthcare providers call this β€œpatchy” amnesia because it usually affects certain memories.
  • Generalized – This type of amnesia affects all memories within a long time (months or even years)
  • Continuous – This is an anterograde form of dissociative amnesia.
  • Systematized – Amnesia impacts everything in a specific category.

Check below for other dissociative amnesia symptoms:

  • Travel or wandering (dissociative fugue) – This is a rare symptom in which a person travels when cannot remember.
  • Relationship and trust problems – Usually, those who suffer from dissociative amnesia, face problems with friendship and romantic attachments.
  • Confusion or disorientation – In such cases, someone does not understand what happens around them. Additionally, patients are not aware of their identity.
  • Flashbacks – Patients with this amnesia type can experience flashbacks as they regain certain memories.
  • Lack of awareness – In addition, those who experience this memory loss type, do not understand they have gaps in their memory. It may last until someone asks that person they should remember but cannot.

Causes

This health condition commonly occurs in combination with long-term stress or trauma. Check below some examples:

  • Neglect or abuse (such as physical, emotional, or sexual)
  • Witnessing violence
  • Sexual violence (such as human trafficking, rape, or sexual assault)
  • War
  • Witnessing an injury or death of another person
  • Certain life-changing or traumatic experiences

In case you were treated for this condition and experience stress and traumatic events later in life, the symptoms may return.

Risk Factors

As per researchers, different factors contribute to dissociative amnesia. However, the risk increases when someone experiences multiple risk factors. For example, a trauma that is long-lasting, repeated, or severe leads to this medical condition worse.

In addition, healthcare providers found that it is possible to be a link to genetics. However, genes cannot provoke this condition alone but can contribute to decreasing factors for it to occur. It means that if you have a family history of dissociative amnesia, you may need fewer contributing factors for this condition.

Diagnosis

Usually, physicians ask you about symptoms and medical and family history to diagnose this condition. In addition, there is a questionnaire that can also help the physician diagnose dissociative amnesia.

It is recommended to not feel ashamed to answer your doctor’s questions if you do not remember something or are feeling anxious or worried about that. Telling them you do not remember something can help to diagnose this condition.

Additionally, if doctors are not sure you have this condition, they can order you to do some tests. For example:

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG)
  • Blood tests (to check for other diseases or toxins that may contribute to this amnesia type)

Ask your healthcare professional if you have any questions.

Treatment

Unfortunately, this condition is not curable but suitable treatment can help to lessen the symptoms and improve the quality of life. The first step of the treatment involves interrupting all that can potentially cause dissociative amnesia. For example combat for military personnel. In some severe cases, people may need to go to a specialized hospital.

However, no medicines are available for dissociative amnesia treatment. As a result, your doctor will prescribe you medications that help in the causing-conditions treatment. For example, if your amnesia is caused by depression or anxiety, physicians commonly prescribe antidepressants. Mental health therapy can also help to overcome unpleasant feelings.

Frequently Asked Questions

What can I expect if I have dissociative amnesia?

Mostly, people with this condition are not aware they experience it. This amnesia type can be mild to severe. Furthermore, people with dissociative amnesia are more prone to have other mental disorders. Examples include:

  • Suicidal behaviors
  • Substance use disorder (SUD)
  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Personality disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

How long does dissociative amnesia last?

In mild cases, it usually lasts from weeks to months but in severe cases, it can be permanent. Discuss with your doctor for more details.

What are the 4 types of dissociative amnesia?

Those who have this disorder can experience different amnesia types, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). For example localized, selective, continuous, systematized, generalized, and dissociative fugue.

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