What is dissociative amnesia?  Causes, Types, Treatments

What is dissociative amnesia? Causes, Types, Treatments

What is dissociative amnesia?  Causes, Types, Treatments

Dissociative amnesia can steal memories from parts of your life, or sometimes your entire autobiography. Here’s how it differs from dissociation and how resolving the trauma underlying memory loss can help you get your life and memories back.

Dissociative amnesia: memory loss

Imagine looking in the mirror and not recognizing the person staring back. Or imagine not being able to remember basic information about your life and lifestyle, such as: B. your place of residence or the name of your partner.

Sounds like something out of a suspense novel or thriller? What is known as dissociative amnesia is more than just a plot twist. In extreme cases, the condition can rob you of all your memories. (Here are possible causes of memory problems that aren’t Alzheimer’s.)

Or it can prevent you from remembering certain sections of your life or parts of a traumatic event. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), most people with dissociative amnesia have a history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. (Here’s how childhood trauma puts you at higher risk for PTSD.)

“Dissociative amnesia, also known as psychogenic memory loss, is one or more episodes of inability to remember important personal information, usually traumatic or stressful in nature, that cannot be explained by normal forgetfulness,” says Rashmi Parmar, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry in Newark, California.

Woman looking at her reflection in the mirror

Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images

Dissociative amnesia vs. dissociation

Dissociation is feeling disconnected from your surroundings and the world around you. You may feel detached or even out of your body, or things around you are not real.

Dissociative amnesia is a form of dissociative disorder. People with dissociative disorder may feel disconnected from the present world for hours or days. In rare cases it can take weeks or months.

These memory lapses are in stark contrast to episodes of dissociation that can occur in otherwise healthy people, says Dr. Parmar. “A simple example is when a person drifts into a daydream episode and loses track of time.”

However, with dissociative amnesia, the memory loss typically comes on suddenly and can last for minutes, days, or even longer, she says.

Most people (75 percent) experience at least one dissociative episode in their lifetime, during which they feel disconnected or disconnected from their body. Of these, only two percent are diagnosed with a dissociative disorder, such as dissociative amnesia, according to NAMI. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with dissociative disorder than men.

In general, the symptoms of dissociative disorder may include an out-of-body experience, such as B. the feeling of seeing oneself in a movie (known as depersonalization); a feeling of detachment or emotional numbness; a blurred sense of identity; and feeling that the world around you is not real (known as derealization).

The other main types of dissociative disorders include dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder). This is marked by the emergence of different personalities taking over.

And Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder is characterized by the persistent feeling that you are detached from your body and watching things unfold from the outside.

This involuntary response to emotional stress can also cause depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.

Types of dissociative amnesia

There are three types of dissociative amnesia:

Localized: You cannot remember events that happened at a specific point in time.

Generalized: You experience complete memory loss and are unable to say who you are or remember anything that happened in your life. These cases are rare.

Gap: You can leave your home and head to unknown parts and forget your personal information. In cases that last weeks or months, you can assume a new identity.

When dissociative amnesia is accompanied by a dissociative fugue, people may flee their familiar surroundings—home, school, or work.

“This is marked by amnesia with [the] Inability to remember one’s past and assuming a new partial or full identity,” says Dr. Parmar. “It also comes on suddenly and often involves complicated travel.”

(Here are the medical reasons why your short-term memory is deteriorating.)

What Causes Dissociative Amnesia?

Anyone can suffer from dissociative amnesia, but it’s more likely in people with certain risk factors than others. “It can occur in all age groups but is more difficult to trigger in younger children because of their limited ability to verbalize subjective experiences,” says Dr. Parmar.

When a person with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is reminded of a past trauma, it can put them into a dissociative state similar to what they experienced during the original trauma, says John H. Krystal, MD, Professor of translational research and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

These memories come in the form of flashbacks, which often occur with PTSD.

Or “sometimes these individuals seem more sensitive to the stresses of life or unclear memories of the trauma,” explains Dr. Krystal, who is also the chief of psychiatry at Yale New Haven Hospital.

Dissociative amnesia and the brain

What exactly goes on in the brains of people with dissociative amnesia is not fully understood. But studies of drugs that cause memory loss and other dissociation symptoms have shed some light, says Dr. crystal.

There appears to be a disconnect between the frontal temporal lobe of the brain and other parts of the brain. The temporal lobe controls the formation and maintenance of memory. (This is what your brain looks like with PTSD.)

“With dissociative amnesia, you don’t have access to a memory that’s so disturbing,” he says. “Even if you wish for it, you avoid it on another level.”

There are times when people can remember parts of a story but not the whole narrative, adds Dr. crystal added. “What you can’t remember can really stop you from moving forward, and instead you’re a victim of memory fragments.”

For example, someone who has been sexually abused may not remember the entire narrative, only fragments. Because of this, “they may have persistent distrust of romantic or sexual partners and may feel extremely uncomfortable in a romantic situation for reasons they don’t understand,” says Dr. crystal. This likely poisons relationships and prevents them from moving forward, he says.

Diagnosing and treating dissociative amnesia

These people may seek help for memory problems, anxiety and depression that may accompany them, or even problems in relationships that they cannot overcome, says Dr. crystal. To make a diagnosis, other possible physical causes of the dropouts, such as brain trauma, epilepsy, stroke, or side effects from medications, must be ruled out, he explains.

Treatment typically involves a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication, says Dr. crystal. There is no specific drug treatment for dissociative amnesia. “Time is helpful, therapy too,” he explains. Sometimes relaxation methods like hypnosis or meditation can help you feel safe enough to access those painful memories.

dr Parmar says there are also specific forms of therapy that can help people overcome dissociative amnesia and prevent it from recurring. “Cognitive behavioral therapy can play a role in helping the person identify and address underlying cognitive biases,” she says. This temporary type of therapy helps change the way you deal with stress and stressors.

Some people can recover spontaneously, she says. “Removing the triggering stressor and providing a safe environment to process the trauma or conflict can support early recovery,” says Dr. Parmar. “In dissociative fugue states, the person may recall their past and recover their original identity once restored.”

The last word

With dissociative amnesia, you forget who you are. It can last for hours or, in rare cases, months. People with a history of trauma or abuse, especially as a child, are at a higher risk of developing the mental illness. Overall, the outlook for people with dissociative amnesia is good. They can often restore their memories without treatment. If you experience episodes, talk to a doctor about what treatment might be best for you.

Next, here are little habits to improve your sanity.

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