Dissociative Amnesia and Its Consequences In the Lives of Survivors

Everybody forgets that is a fact of life. You might forget where you placed your car keys or where you last saw the dog’s leash; that is ordinary forgetting.

Dissociative amnesia is different. It is a condition that is trauma-based and can disrupt a person’s life.

This article shall examine dissociative amnesia, its causes, and treatments, plus how to cope with this dissociative disorder.

In Brief, What is Dissociative Amnesia

Dissociative amnesia (DA), once known as psychogenic amnesia, is a dissociative disorder where a survivor loses or does not retain information into long-term memory, such as autobiographical memories that happened in the last hour or perhaps important events from their past.

Dissociative amnesia is different from organic amnesia in many ways including no physical causes such as brain lesions, messed up blood levels, or other illnesses detected by medical procedures.

What Causes Dissociative Amnesia?

Dissociative amnesia is caused by experiencing trauma at any age, such as a veteran returning from war or an adult survivor of multiple child abuse traumas. DA includes new memories and those that are from years, even decades in the past.

This type of forgetfulness is rare, only affecting 1% of men and 2.6% of women.

The kind of information that is lost depends on the person. Some people cannot remember personal information such, in its most severe form, as their name, their friends, or their families. Other milder cases involve, for example, chronically forgetting recent events or the names of people they just met a few moments before.    

To be clear, the information that the survivor has lost isn’t gone; it has become irretrievable for some unknown reason.

The Patterns of Dissociative Amnesia

DA symptoms vary by person and can be co-occurring with other diagnoses such as dissociative identity disorder. Although it may co-occur, dissociative amnesia is a stand-alone diagnosis.

There are three patterns of dissociative amnesia:

Localized, where memory loss affects specific memories and parts of a survivor’s life, such as childhood memories or details about someone you work with or a friend. The memory loss is often related to trauma in the near past or even an event that happened many years before.

Generalized, where memory loss affects significant portions of a survivor’s life, such as losing the name of a friend or family member, not remembering what you did during the day, or yesterday. Remember, DA is not the same as organic amnesia caused by a brain lesion or aging. Instead, it is brought on by extreme stress and trauma.

Fugue is where a person has generalized amnesia and adopts a different identity. Often fugue involves the survivor losing complete contact with who they are and traveling anywhere from across town to a different part of the world. Fugue is very serious, and people who experience it may never be found nor recover their memories.

What is it Like to Live with Dissociative Amnesia?

Survivors who live with the effects of DA report feeling as though they are walking around in a fog that sometimes clears to show them just how much they have forgotten. The memories may be stirred back to life by a relative or friend bringing up a topic, or the survivor may realize they can’t remember the name of someone they have known for an extended period.

It can be quite frightening living in the brain fog of dissociative amnesia because one worries about dementia and related disorders, but DA is not dementia. It is a psychological mechanism that was handy when the survivor needed to push back and “forget” traumatic events from which they could not escape.

It is often difficult for people who encounter survivors with DA to understand why they are not remembered or why their friend is acting as if they had just been told a bit of biographical information about themselves for the first time. Often survivors develop excellent skills in hiding their surprise and make others believe they remember them when they do not.

The Treatments for Dissociative Amnesia

Treatment for dissociative amnesia is determined by the type of amnesia one has, but first, safety must be established before any in-depth treatment can begin. This may include hospitalization or close observation by a clinician or a family member to prevent the person from getting lost in the case of fugue.

The primary goal of treatment for DA is to reconnect survivors with their lost memories and aims to help the survivor:

  • Develop new coping skills to avoid forgetting;
  • Get back as much function as possible;
  • Safely deal with the painful events that caused their DA

The best treatment approach depends on the survivor’s wants, the pattern of amnesia the person has, and how severe the symptoms are. These treatments may include one or a combination of the following methods:

Psychotherapy. Sometimes known as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy is the primary treatment method for treating dissociative disorders, including dissociative amnesia.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy: A form of psychotherapy that focuses on changing the harmful thinking patterns, behaviors, and feelings of the survivor.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a technique that is often used to treat dissociative disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dialectic- behavior therapy (DBT): DBT is another form of psychotherapy that treats personality disturbances (including dissociative symptoms) that happen after a person has lived through trauma.

Meditation and relaxation techniques. These methods help survivors handle their dissociation and become more aware of their internal states, helping to avoid losing memories.

Expressive Methods: Techniques and methods such as art and music therapy, help survivors express their emotions easier and increase their sense of safety to uncover and prevent lost memories.

Clinical hypnosis: This treatment focuses on intense relaxation and achieving a different state of consciousness. In this author’s opinion, hypnosis is a dangerous form of treatment for dissociative identity disorder as it can unleash too many memories of past trauma at once and cause a survivor increased and unnecessary distress.

Medications: There are no drugs to treat dissociative amnesia.

Learning to Cope

Unfortunately, some survivors do not respond well to healing techniques for their dissociative amnesia, even though their other dissociative symptoms make significant progress towards healing.

In treatment-resistant DA cases, survivors can go on to live full, active, and happy lives after they have accepted and learned to cope with the brain fog of dissociative amnesia.

Dissociative amnesia is not a death sentence in any way; it is only a mild inconvenience if one relaxes and realizes DA is only a part of who they are, not their entire identity.

Life in a forgetting world is challenging, but that does not mean survivors with dissociative amnesia cannot enjoy their lives and the lives of those around them.

“To overcome difficulties is to experience the full delight of existence. ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

“One of life’s best coping mechanisms is to know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. ~ Robert Fulghum    

References

 American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.

Cleveland Clinic (2016). Retrieved from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9789-dissociative-amnesia/management-and-treatment#

Joseph, R. (1999). The neurology of traumatic” dissociative” amnesia: commentary and literature review. Child Abuse & Neglect.

Hosein, M, Treisman, G. (2017). Dissociative Amnesia. Johns Hopkins Psychiatric Guide. Retrieved from: https://www.hopkinsguides.com/hopkins/view/Johns_Hopkins_Psychiatry_Guide/787157/all/Dissociative_Amnesia

Leong, S., Waits, W., & Diebold, C. (2006). Dissociative amnesia and DSM-IV-TR Cluster C personality traits. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 3(1), 51. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2990548/

Putnam F. Dissociative phenomena. In: Tasman A, Goldfinger S, editors. American Psychiatric Press Review of Psychiatry, Volume 10. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press; 1991. pp. 145–60.

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