Dissociative amnesia

An Overview

Dissociative amnesia is one of a group of conditions called dissociative disorders. Dissociative disorders are mental illnesses that involve disruptions or breakdowns of memory, consciousness, awareness, identity, and/or perception. When one or more of these functions is disrupted, symptoms can result.

Dissociative amnesia occurs when a person blocks out certain information, usually associated with a stressful or traumatic event, leaving him or her unable to remember important personal information. With this disorder, the degree ofmemory loss goes beyond normal forgetfulness and includes gaps in memory for long periods of time or of memories involving the traumatic event.

About 2% of the U.S. population experiences true dissociative disorders (not just momentary feelings of dissociation). All age groups, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds are affected. Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed.

Types of dissociative disorders

There are three primary types of dissociative disorders:

• Dissociative identity disorder
• Depersonalization/derealization disorder
• Dissociative amnesia

Acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are closely related to dissociative disorders, sharing such symptoms as memory loss, depersonalization or derealization.

What Causes Dissociative Amnesia

Dissociative amnesia has been linked to overwhelming stress, which might be the result of traumatic events — such as war, abuse, accidents, or disasters — that the person has experienced or witnessed. There also might be a genetic link to the development of dissociative disorders, including dissociative amnesia, because people with these disorders sometimes have close relatives who have had similar conditions.

Personal identity is still forming during childhood. So a child is more able than an adult to step outside of himself or herself and observe trauma as though it’s happening to a different person. A child who learns to dissociate in order to endure a traumatic experience may use this coping mechanism in response to stressful situations throughout life.

Mentally removing oneself from a traumatic situation such as an accident, natural disaster, military combat, being a crime victim repeated physical, mental or sexual abuse can be a coping mechanism that helps one escape pain in the short term.

Symptoms for Dissociative amnesia 

The existence of two or more distinct identities or “personality states.” Each identity has a particular set of behaviors, attitudes, preferences, memories, and ways of thinking that are observable by others and may even be reported by the affected person. Signs and symptoms depend on the type of dissociative disorders you have, but may include:

  • Memory loss (amnesia) of certain time periods, events, people and personal information
  • A sense of being detached from yourself and your emotions
  • A perception of the people and things around you as distorted and unreal
  • A blurred sense of identity
  • Feel like your heart is pounding or you’re light-headed
  • Feel emotionally numb or detached
  • Feel little or no pain
  • Significant stress or problems in your relationships, work or other important areas of your life
  • Inability to cope well with emotional or professional stress
  • Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
  • Have an out-of-body experience
  • Feel like you are a different person sometimes
  • Hear voices in your head
  • Have intense flashbacks that feel real
  • Become immobile
  • Depersonalization – Feelings of unreality or of being detached from one’s own mind, body or self. It is as if one is an observer of rather than a participant in their own life events.
  • Derealization – Feelings of unreality or of being detached from one’s surroundings. People and things may not seem real.

Diagnosis

  • Physical Exam. Your doctor examines you, asks in-depth questions, and reviews your symptoms and personal history. Certain tests may eliminate physical conditions — for example, head injury, certain brain diseases, sleep deprivation or intoxication — that can cause symptoms such as memory loss and a sense of unreality.
  • Psychiatric exam. Your mental health professional asks questions about your thoughts, feelings, and behavior and discusses your symptoms. With your permission, information from family members or others may be helpful.
  • Diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5. Your mental health professional may compare your symptoms to the criteria for diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Treatment

No psychiatric medications directly treat the symptoms of dissociative disorders. However, ongoing research is revealing that specific combinations of medications can effectively treat dissociative conditions, especially when they are comorbid with other psychiatric disorders.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is the primary treatment for dissociative disorders. This form of therapy, also known as talk therapy, counseling or psychosocial therapy, involves talking about your disorder and related issues with a mental health professional. Look for a therapist with advanced training or experience in working with people who have experienced trauma.

Medication

Although there are no medications that specifically treat dissociative disorders, your doctor may prescribe antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications or antipsychotic drugs to help control the mental health symptoms associated with dissociative disorders.

Meditation

Like daydreaming, you may become less aware of the here and now while you meditate. Some expert meditators say they lose an awareness of their self or body during certain mindfulness meditation practices.

Antidepressants

Most people who have a dissociative disorder also have another psychiatric condition. As dissociative symptoms often develop in response to overwhelming emotional stress or pain, worsening depression and anxiety can trigger deeper and longer periods of dissociation.

Therapy for Dissociative Disorder

While medications can be used to treat dissociative disorders, therapy is more commonly recommended as the best intervention. Different types of therapy address different aspects of dissociative disorders, and particular combinations of therapy modalities can be especially effective.

Your symptoms do not occur only during the course of another mental disorder, such as schizophrenia or panic disorder, or during another dissociative disorder. Your symptoms are also not explained by the direct effects of alcohol or other drugs, or a medical condition, such as temporal lobe epilepsy. Your symptoms cause you significant stress or problems in your relationships, work or other important areas of your life.

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