What Causes Dissociative Amnesia?

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Dissociative amnesia is a rare type of disorder characterized by difficulty recalling autobiographical information, often developing after a stressful or traumatic event. A person with dissociative amnesia may struggle to remember key details about themselves and their life, including their name, date of birth, where they live or work, or significant events.

This article discusses dissociative amnesia, as well as its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

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What Causes Dissociative Amnesia?

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the handbook used by mental health professionals to diagnose and treat mental health disorders, attributes the onset of dissociative amnesia to a highly stressful or traumatic event.

Examples of traumatic events can include, but are not limited to:

  • Abuse (emotional, mental, physical, and/or sexual)
  • Witnessing a traumatic event
  • Surviving a natural disaster
  • Sudden loss or death
  • Surviving an accident or other near-death situation

Who's at Risk for Developing Dissociative Amnesia?

Factors that place a person at increased risk of developing dissociative amnesia include:

Living through multiple traumatic experiences, especially those with greater frequency or intensity of violence, increases your risk of developing dissociative amnesia. Additionally, individuals with this condition have a higher risk of suicidal thoughts or behavior.

Suicide Prevention Lifeline

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

Dissociative Amnesia Symptoms

The DSM-5 identifies the following criteria for dissociative amnesia:

  • Inability to recall autobiographical information
  • Lost information may be stressful or traumatic
  • Confusion
  • Detachment from self and others
  • Significant impairment in various aspects of a person’s life (work, school, home, etc.)
  • Distress related to memory loss
  • One or multiple episodes

For someone to be diagnosed with dissociative amnesia, their symptoms cannot be better explained by a separate medical or neurological condition, substance use, or a different mental health condition. For instance, a psychologist or psychiatrist must rule out conditions such as dissociative identity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or acute stress disorder.

Gaps in memory related to dissociative amnesia can last for a few minutes, and in severe cases, continue for years. Memory loss associated with this type of amnesia can take a toll on the individual and their quality of life.

In addition, individuals with dissociative amnesia may experience changes to their cognitive functioning, memory, emotions, behavior, and identity.

Subtypes of Dissociative Amnesia

Subtypes of dissociative amnesia include:

  • Generalized amnesia occurs when a person loses memory across areas of their life. For instance, they may not be able to recall information about their identity or significant life events. This type of amnesia is rare.
  • Localized amnesia is the inability to remember specific periods of time. Memory loss may be related to a period when a stressful or traumatic event occurred. This form of amnesia is more common than the other subtypes.
  • Selective amnesia occurs when an individual loses some information related to a person, period, or event. As a result, they may remember some details but not others.
  • Dissociative fugue is a severe form of dissociative amnesia. It involves the inability to recall important information or details. However, in addition to memory loss, a person may wander or travel to another location and sometimes assume a new identity.

How Is Dissociative Amnesia Diagnosed?

Diagnosing dissociative amnesia requires an evaluation from a healthcare provider. Primary care providers may be the first point of contact, but they may recommend you to a mental health professional as well.

To assess a person for dissociative amnesia, a provider will review a patient’s complete medical history, conduct a physical exam, and discuss the person's psychological history.

Medical testing can help healthcare providers rule out other potential causes like neurological conditions, sleep issues, or brain diseases. These tests can include:

It is also imperative to rule out other mental health conditions and substance use.

Treatment for Dissociative Amnesia

Treatment approaches for dissociative amnesia may vary based on each individual patient’s symptoms and presentation.

Ultimately, the goal of treatment for dissociative amnesia is to stabilize the patient. Once this occurs, a mental health professional and patient may discuss the possibility of recovering memories and addressing the trauma that may have contributed to amnesia.

Therapy is an important treatment strategy. A mental health professional may utilize:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help address thought patterns, trauma, and develop coping skills.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) targets triggers associated with stimuli and trauma-related symptoms.
  • Psychodynamic talk therapy to explore conscious or unconscious themes that may be relevant.

Since there is no medication that specifically treats dissociative amnesia, a healthcare provider may prescribe medications such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or others.

Help Is Available

If you have symptoms of dissociative amnesia, you can seek help by reaching out to a healthcare provider or contacting the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on psychological support and treatment facilities in your area.

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

Summary

Dissociative amnesia is a dissociative disorder defined by trouble recalling autobiographical information or events. The condition may cause significant impairment and disruptions in various areas of a person’s life.

Seeking evaluation from a medical or mental health provider is the first step in getting an accurate diagnosis and ruling out other possible causes. Treatment may involve a combination of medication and therapy to stabilize the individual before addressing factors that may contribute to dissociative amnesia.

A Word From Verywell

It can be frightening to experience dissociative amnesia or witness a loved one going through it. If you're living with dissociative amnesia, you may feel lost on how to cope with stressful or traumatic events and the symptoms that follow. Sharing your concerns directly with a healthcare provider can help you get diagnosed and be on your way to recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between amnesia and dissociative amnesia?

    Dissociative amnesia is a dissociative disorder often resulting from a traumatic or severely stressful event. Amnesia is a memory disorder attributed to infections, brain diseases, or other medical conditions.

  • What is it like to have dissociative amnesia?

    Everyone’s experience with dissociative amnesia is different. Memory loss or inability to recall important personal information or details can be confusing and frustrating. Dissociative amnesia may affect a person’s perceptions, mood, thoughts, and behavior. Many times, this type of amnesia develops in response to trauma, meaning there are other potentially painful experiences to address.

  • What is the relationship between dissociative amnesia and dissociative fugue?

    Dissociative amnesia describes the inability to recall events or significant personal details. Dissociative fugue includes dissociative amnesia, traveling or wandering to a different location, and sometimes assuming a new identity.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health 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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