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Dissociative Amnesia - Causes, Types, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Dissociative amnesia is a memory disorder flagged as an acute episodic memory loss disorder. The episode lasts from hours to years, sometimes even decades.

Written by

Dr. Kirti Maan

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Vishal Anilkumar Gandhi

Published At August 25, 2022
Reviewed AtOctober 13, 2022

What Is Dissociative Amnesia?

Dissociative amnesia or psychogenic amnesia is a type of amnesia wherein a person is unable to remember essential information about life such as name, relationships, family members, friends, and other significant family histories. Dissociative amnesia is also referred to as dissociative disorder, characterized by intermittent memory loss or gaps. These gaps or losses make an individual have difficulty remembering personal memory or information due to trauma or stress or a stressful event caused due to trauma.

According to the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), dissociative fugue (a psychiatry disorder characterized by amnesia combined with an unplanned tour (traveling) away from the familiar surroundings and denial or loss of all the memory of the past, during the duration of travel) is now subsumed under dissociative amnesia.

Dissociative amnesia is often classified with retrograde amnesia (the incapacity of an individual to remember old memories, resulting in the onset of amnesia) and an absence of antegrade amnesia (the incapacity of an individual to construct new long-term memories). Other aspects of memory are also debarred and affected, but the retrograde branch seems to take the deepest hit.

What Are the Types of Dissociative Amnesia?

Dissociative amnesia (DA) is a mental health disorder. They are often marked by a disconnection between memory and its links to identity, surroundings, and basic information.

The person suffering from dissociative amnesia feels disconnected from the world in the sense of everything being unknown. Periods or episodes of dissociative amnesia usually last for hours or days and, in the worst-case scenarios, even for weeks and months. There are different types of DA. They are,

  • Localized: This is the type of DA where the person has difficulty remembering events from a specific time period.

  • Generalized: It is a rare type of dissociative amnesia. This is the type of DA wherein a complete loss of memory occurs (like identity and life history).

  • Fugue: In a dissociative fugue, the person forgets most or all of the personal information and may travel to places without recollection of the past memory.

What Causes Dissociative Amnesia?

The prime causative factor responsible for dissociative amnesia is stress or trauma. With research and experiments, there are certainly other factors linked to the origin of dissociative amnesia, and they are:

  • History of physical (including sexual) or emotional abuse.

  • Positive familial history of DA.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  • Depression.

  • Personality disorders.

  • Sleep disorders.

  • Substance dependence (addiction) or misuse.

  • The stress of experiencing the death of a close relative or family member.

  • Experiencing a near-death experience.

  • Positive history of migraine.

  • History of brain lesions.

Dissociative amnesia is a coping mechanism. It is the brain’s attempt to manage the stress and trauma of one’s life. When a child develops dissociative amnesia, it is the brain micromanaging the trauma or stress endured by the child.

What Are the Symptoms of Dissociative Amnesia?

Certain signs and symptoms of dissociative amnesia are:

1. Memory loss.

2. Forgetfulness concerning one’s identity, personal information, people, etc.

3. Distorted sense of the real world.

4. Unreal or blurred sense of identity.

5. Incapacitative sense of responsibility when it comes to stress.

6. Mental illnesses (such as depression, anxiety, and panic attacks).

7. Episodic memory loss.

8. Memory loss is not linked to other medical conditions or being under the influence of substances (drugs or alcohol).

How to Diagnose Someone With Dissociative Amnesia?

For a medical health professional to diagnose someone suffering from dissociative amnesia, it is important to take note of medical history and perform a proper physical examination. Taking a medical history and physical examination helps to rule out:

  • Other illnesses.

  • Trauma to the brain (brain injuries or lesions).

  • Substance abuse (alcohol or drugs).

With the help of proper testing, if the cause of amnesia is ruled out to be anything but a physical cause, then the patient is referred to a licensed psychologist or a psychiatrist. Furthermore, a psychological exam is performed to gather more information about the disease and to determine the severity of the illness.

What Is the Treatment of Dissociative Amnesia?

Treatment of dissociative amnesia aims at:

  • Relieving the symptoms of amnesia.

  • Helping the individual to manage the stress and trauma leading to amnesia.

  • Helping the individual to stabilize their life.

  • Managing ways to reconnect with the environment, surroundings, and the people around.

Treatment of dissociative amnesia includes-

1. Psychotherapy: Therapy entails talking to the patient about their symptoms, causes, and complications caused by amnesia. Different types of psychotherapy are-

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy - The aim of the therapy is to talk to the patient to relieve them of their stress and pay attention to the betterment of their symptoms.

  • Hypnosis - It is a way through which discussing the cause of amnesia is more patient-friendly, and the more the patient talks about the cause, the better the treatment plan can be formed.

2. Medication: There is no specific medication prescribed to treat dissociative amnesia. However, certain medications are prescribed to treat underlying causes of amnesia; they are:

  • Antidepressants.

  • Anti-anxiety medications.

  • Barbiturates.

What Are the Complications of Dissociative Amnesia?

People with dissociative disorders are at increased risk of complications such as:

1. Self-harming behavior.

2. Suicidal tendencies.

3. Sexually dysfunctional.

4. Alcoholism.

5. Depression.

6. Anxiety disorders.

7. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

8. Personality disorders.

9. Sleep disorders (insomnia or night terrors).

10. Eating disorders.

11. Lightheadedness.

12. Poor personal and professional relationships.

Conclusion:

Dissociative amnesia is a relatively acute mental health disorder. Episodes last from hours to days to weeks. However, in severe cases, periods of dissociative amnesia may last even for months. Depending on the severity of the illness, there have been reported cases of multiple episodes of dissociative amnesia throughout the course of life. Dissociative amnesia is a life-altering and threatening condition which can affect one’s amenity towards life. However complicated and life-altering the situation might be, it is still a treatable condition. It is hard to pinpoint the access point of the illness and prevent the disorder from happening, but one can obviate dissociative amnesia. Improving the lifestyle and avoiding stress or trauma can help someone to live a relatively healthy lifestyle.

Though treatable dissociative amnesia should not be taken lightly as the failure to treat it might lead to some life-threatening complications. Most often, someone suffering from dissociative amnesia eventually regains their memories (with or without treatment, depending upon the severity).

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Dr. Vishal Anilkumar Gandhi
Dr. Vishal Anilkumar Gandhi

Psychiatry

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