Creating Lasting Recovery from Dissociative Amnesia

Dissociative amnesia is a frightening condition in which your memories disappear as a result of a traumatic event. It can affect your life profoundly. The nature of the memory loss can take many forms. To ensure lasting recovery, receiving a diagnosis from a medical professional is an important first step, and proper treatment is crucial.

It can be startling and frightening to consider: Your memories of your life, your family, your friends—even your memories of something as basic and essential as who you are—could suddenly vanish.

Dissociative amnesia is a disorder characterized by serious memory loss, which often stems from a traumatic experience.

Dissociative amnesia is one of three types of dissociative disorders classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

These disorders collectively affect approximately two percent of adults in the United States, with women diagnosed with these conditions more frequently than men.

Dissociative amnesia can be a stressful and disquieting condition, and the underlying causes behind it might be responsible for a great deal of ongoing mental anguish. However, lasting recovery is possible, provided you receive sufficient support and care.

How Dissociative Amnesia Can Affect Your Life

Dissociative amnesia is markedly different from simple amnesia, which is brought about by disease or injury. In simple amnesia, missing memories have been damaged or destroyed by trauma to the brain; in dissociative amnesia, your memories are still intact, but you’re unable to recall them—though they often eventually surface on their own.

Dissociative amnesia is most likely a subconscious way of coping with overwhelming stress or trauma—often, the kind associated with war or natural disasters, or with an internal conflict, such as guilt over past behavior. The primary symptom is the inability to recall personal information or past experiences, which may create intense anxiety, confusion, or depression. Your lost memories could be entirely centered around a specific event, period of time, or person; in rare cases, you may be unable to recall your entire life history.

The Nature of Memory Loss With Dissociative Amnesia

Not all memory loss is equal. Within dissociative amnesia, memory loss may take any of multiple forms:

  • Localized amnesia: Inability to recall certain events during a certain time. If you have no memory of an event in your past, you most likely have localized amnesia. This is the most common form.
  • Selective amnesia: You can recall some parts of a certain event, though there are gaps in your memory.
  • Systematized amnesia: You’ve forgotten everything about an entire category of information, such as a specific person or location.
  • Continuous amnesia: You’re unable to remember new events as they occur.
  • Generalized amnesia: You can’t remember anything about who you are. Your life history and your personal information are a blank. This form of amnesia is, thankfully, very rare.

Sometimes dissociative amnesia can lead to the creation of a fugue state, in which your confusion about your lost memories leads you to travel away from home and create a new partial or complete identity.

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Receiving a Diagnosis of Dissociative Amnesia

If you suspect you have dissociative amnesia, a first step in the diagnostic process is receiving a physical examination. Your doctor will perform tests to rule out brain injury, illness, sleep deprivation, or side effects from substances such as medication, drugs, or alcohol as the underlying cause. These tests may include blood and urine tests, brain imaging, or electroencephalograms to record brain activity and search for anomalies. If no physical cause of your amnesia is found, you’ll be referred to a mental health professional for evaluation.

A psychiatrist or psychologist will interview you, conduct a thorough professional evaluation of your mental state, and compare your symptoms against criteria laid out in the DSM-5. The following symptoms should exist for a diagnosis of dissociative amnesia to be reached:

  1. You’re unable to recall personal information or past events as a result of trauma or stress. This lack of recollection must be inconsistent with normal forgetfulness.
  2. Your symptoms cause you distress or impede you in your personal or professional life.
  3. Your symptoms can’t be explained by an existing medical condition or substance use.
  4. Your symptoms can’t be better explained by another dissociative disorder, a stress disorder, or a neurocognitive disorder.

If the mental health professional to whom you’ve trusted with your diagnosis is able to positively compare your symptoms to the criteria established by the DSM-5, you may be diagnosed with dissociative amnesia, whereupon you can begin to receive appropriate treatment.

Proper Treatment is Crucial for Lasting Recovery from Dissociative Amnesia

There’s good news: With dissociative amnesia, your memory will most likely return by itself with time. However, even if your memory has fully returned, professional treatment is essential to help you safely deal with the effects of the trauma underpinning your memory loss. Your main form of treatment for the effects of dissociative amnesia will likely come in the form of therapy, which is the key to helping you understand your condition and develop new coping skills. It may include family therapy or creative therapies such as music or art therapy, all of which can aid in the creation of a safe, supportive, and understanding environment in which you can recover.

Hypnosis is sometimes used to help recover lost memories, though there’s a danger that false memories may be formed in the process. With all forms of treatment for dissociative amnesia, it’s important it be conducted in a gentle and careful manner by experienced mental health professionals to avoid exacerbating the underlying trauma or inadvertently forming false memories.

Appropriate treatment will give you an understanding of the conflicts underlying your amnesia, improve your relationships with your friends and family members, and help you move on with your life. A residential mental health treatment facility is designed to be an ideal solution for treatment and recovery, providing you with a safe and supportive environment and professional care customized to your particular situation. As frightening as the prospect of losing your memories may be, living with the lingering effects of a significant trauma may be equally devastating to your mental health. Treatment is the best way to bring you to a full recovery.

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental health illnesses and co-occurring disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.