Dissociative amnesia is one of a group of conditions called dissociative disorders. Dissociative disorders are mental illnesses that involve impairment or damage to memory, awareness, identity, or perception. When one or more of these functions is interrupted, symptoms can appear. These symptoms can interfere with a person’s general functioning, including social and work activities, and relationships with other people and families.
Dissociative amnesia occurs when a person blocks certain information, usually related to a stressful or traumatic event, but this causes him to be unable to remember important personal information. With this disorder, the level of memory loss goes beyond normal forgetfulness and includes long-term memory gaps or memories involving traumatic events.
Dissociative amnesia is not the same as simplex amnesia, which involves loss of information from memory, usually as a result of a disease or brain injury. In dissociative amnesia, memories still exist but are buried in a person’s mind and cannot be recalled. However, the memories will reappear on their own or after being triggered by something in the person’s environment.
Causes of Dissociative Amnesia
Dissociative amnesia has been linked to extraordinary stress, which may be the result of a traumatic event such as war, violence, accident, or disaster, and the patient is a person who has experienced it or witnessed it himself. There may also be a genetic link to dissociative disorders, including dissociative amnesia, because people with this disorder sometimes have close relatives who already have the same condition.
Dissociative amnesia is more common in women than men. The frequency of dissociative amnesia tends to increase during periods of stress or trauma, such as during wartime or after natural disasters.
Symptoms of Dissociative Amnesia
The main symptom of dissociative amnesia is the inability to remember past experiences or personal information. Some people with this disorder may also appear confused and suffer from depression or anxiety.
If the symptoms of dissociative amnesia are present, the doctor will begin evaluating by carrying out a complete medical history and physical examination. Although there are no specific laboratory tests to diagnose dissociative disorders, doctors may use various diagnostic tests, such as neuroimaging, electroencephalograms (EEG), or blood tests, to rule out various neurological or other illnesses or drug side effects as a cause of symptoms. Certain conditions, including brain disease, head injuries, drugs and alcohol poisoning, and lack of sleep, can cause symptoms similar to dissociative disorders, including amnesia.
If no physical illness is found, the patient may be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist, a health care professional who is specifically trained to diagnose and treat mental illness. Psychiatrists and psychologists use interviews and special assessment tools designed to evaluate a person for dissociative disorders.
Dissociative Amnesia Treatment
The first goal of treatment for dissociative amnesia is to relieve symptoms and control problem behavior. Treatment then aims to help people safely express and process painful memories, develop new life skills, restore function, and be able to relate to others. The best treatment approach depends on the individual and the severity of the symptoms. Treatment can include:
- Psychotherapy: This type of therapy for mental and emotional disorders uses psychological techniques designed to encourage conflict communication and enhance problem insight.
- Cognitive therapy: This type of therapy focuses on changing dysfunctional thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
- Drug: There is no medicine to treat dissociative disorders yourself. However, people with dissociative disorders who also suffer from depression or anxiety may be helped from treatment with drugs such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs.
- Family therapy: This type of therapy helps to teach families about the disorder and its causes, as well as to help sick family members recognize relapse symptoms.
- Creative therapy (art therapy or music therapy): This therapy allows patients to explore and express their thoughts and feelings in a safe and creative way.
- Hypnosis: This is a treatment method that uses intense relaxation, concentration, and focus of attention to attain an altered state of consciousness (awareness), which allows people to explore their thoughts, feelings, and memories that might have been hidden from their conscious thoughts. The use of hypnosis to treat dissociative disorders is controversial because of the risk of creating false memories.
The likelihood for people with dissociative amnesia depends on several factors, including a person’s situation of life, the availability of a support system, and the individual’s response to treatment. For most people with dissociative amnesia, memory returns over time, making overall possibilities very good. In some cases, there are individuals who can never retrieve memories that have been deliberately buried.
Prevention of Dissociative Amnesia
Although it is not possible to prevent dissociative amnesia, it may be helpful to start treatment in people as soon as they show symptoms. Interventions immediately after a traumatic event or sad emotional experience can help to reduce the possibility of dissociative disorders.