Dissociative Amnesia: Deeply Buried Memories
Dissociative amnesia can be mistaken for other mental illnesses such as dementia or delirium but, in fact, the definition of dissociative amnesia makes it a diagnosis in its own right and it is a dissociative disorder. Dissociative amnesia involves an inability to recall important personal information in a way that is not explained by another illness or everyday forgetfulness. The definition of dissociative amnesia can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, along with all other mental illnesses.
Some people may develop dissociative amnesia as an alternative to suicide. If traumatic memories are recovered in these cases (for example, memories of sexual abuse), without proper treatment these people may be at risk of suicide.
Dissociative Amnesia Symptoms
To reach the level of an official mental illness diagnosis, the symptoms of dissociative amnesia must cause significant distress or impairment in important areas of life such as functioning at work or at home.
According to Medscape, in addition to the condition of distress or impairment, the following are the two main diagnostic dissociative amnesia symptoms:
- A predominant disturbance of one or more episodes of an inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.
- The disturbance does not occur exclusively during the course of dissociative identity disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder, or somatization disorder and is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance or of another medical condition.
There are five types of dissociative amnesia that further specify dissociative amnesia symptoms and they include:
- Localized amnesia – no memory from a specific time period
- Selective amnesia – partial memory of a particular time period
- Generalized amnesia – a rare form of amnesia wherein the person can't remember his or her whole life including his or her identity
- Continuous amnesia – no memory from the past but is aware of current surroundings
- Systemized amnesia – no memory of a certain category of information such as information about a specific person or place
Dissociative Amnesia and Fugue
In rare cases, a fugue state is associated with dissociative amnesia. Dissociative amnesia and fugue is when a person unexpectedly travels from the home or from work apparently towards a destination (or appearing to be running away from something) and without memory of his or her past or of their identity. Fugue states with dissociative amnesia can last for hours, days, weeks or, in rare cases, even longer. It is estimated that 0.2% of the population has dissociative fugue.
What Causes Dissociative Amnesia?
Typically, a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events causes dissociative amnesia. The more severe the trauma, the more likely the appearance of dissociative amnesia. According to Medscape, common causes of dissociative amnesia include: wars, a history of child abuse or sexual abuse, surviving a concentration camp, being a victim of torture and surviving a natural disaster.
Treatment for Dissociative Amnesia
Some cases of dissociative amnesia require treatment in a hospital. These are cases in which the person is a clear and present danger to him or herself or others, when a definitive diagnosis has not been made or when medication effects need professional monitoring. Hospitalization for dissociative amnesia is particularly helpful for patients experiencing current abuse. Dissociative amnesia may spontaneously resolve when a person is removed from a traumatic situation.
Outside of hospitalization, treatment for dissociative amnesia tends to involve psychotherapy. Psychotherapy may be augmented by the use of hypnosis or a drug-facilitated interview to allow a person to be in a state of enhanced calm in which to discuss or discover deeply buried memories.
People with dissociative amnesia also commonly suffer from comorbid (co-occurring) disorders like depression or posttraumatic stress disorder and these disorders, or their symptoms, are typically treated with antidepressants, antipsychotics or anticonvulsants (mood stabilizers).
Last Updated: 16 October 2018
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD