Treating Dissociative Amnesia and PTSD: Why Dual Diagnosis Treatment is Key

Triggered by trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder can overwhelm your ability to cope—and may be associated with partial or complete memory loss. The complicated link between dissociative amnesia and PTSD causes great anxiety and stress for those who experience both frightening and debilitating conditions. Dual diagnosis treatment from mental health professionals is the key to recovery.

Two years ago, a serious workplace accident left Elaine with a shattered hip and an assortment of broken bones and lacerations. While she eventually made a full recovery from her physical injuries, she suffered from frequent recurring flashbacks to the incident, which would cause incapacitating feelings of anxiety. Figuring the flashbacks would go away with time, Elaine downplayed their severity to her family.

Soon, however, she began to experience spells of unexplained memory loss. She could no longer remember either the accident or the events surrounding it; she also sometimes found herself uncertain of her own identity, a feeling she described as “living in a fog.” Alarmed, Elaine’s husband urged her to visit her doctor.

Elaine, it turned out, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD. A mental illness sparked by trauma, Elaine’s PTSD was triggered by the overwhelming stress of her accident. Complicating her situation considerably was the co-occurring presence of dissociative amnesia, a trauma-associated disorder that frequently accompanies PTSD. Only by receiving comprehensive dual diagnosis treatment for both conditions at a residential mental health treatment facility did Elaine finally recover from the distressing effects of both disorders.

When PTSD Overwhelms Your Ability to Cope

Modern PTSD can trace its roots to the battlefields of World War I. In 1915, psychiatrist C.S. Meyers first used the term “shell shock” to describe the mental state of soldiers suffering from a range of severe adverse reactions to battle trauma—including, frequently, amnesia. Beyond the battlefield, PTSD can affect anyone who experiences a severe traumatic event, such as an act of violence, a natural disaster, or a car accident. A related condition known as complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is triggered by long-term exposure to a traumatic environment, as one might experience in a situation of ongoing abuse or domestic violence during childhood. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks to the trauma, persistent unwanted memories, nightmares, insomnia, uncontrolled angry outbursts, and an inability to focus.

Along with the above symptoms, PTSD can also cause strong and lasting feelings of dissociation. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, between fifteen to thirty percent of PTSD sufferers experience some degree of depersonalization, defined as a sense of a loss of personal identity, or derealization, defined as a sense that one’s surroundings are somehow unreal. Dissociation is a natural coping method in times of trauma, created as a protective means of mental escape from the full horror of the environment. Problems arise when the feelings of dissociation linger or emerge long after the traumatic event has ended. In some cases, this dissociation can cause partial or complete memory loss. When this happens, the condition is known as dissociative amnesia.

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When trauma overwhelms someone’s ability to cope with a situation, the memories of the traumatic event might not properly integrate with their consciousness. While memories generally fade naturally over time, memories of trauma may become hyper realistic for those with PTSD. These memories, which often surface in an involuntary and intrusive manner, may also be accompanied by a crystal-clear recollection of sounds or smells from the moment of trauma. However, while these memories may be unnaturally vivid, they’re also often incomplete. Hyperrealistic and unwanted memories of the traumatic event may be interspersed with an inability to remember the event at all.

In its criteria for diagnosing PTSD, a proposed revision to the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) made the link between PTSD and dissociative amnesia explicit. Per the proposed revision, the cognitive criteria for diagnosis include an “inability to remember an important aspect of the traumatic event(s) (typically due to dissociative amnesia that is not due to head injury, alcohol, or drugs).” Because dissociative amnesia and PTSD often go hand in hand, it’s crucial they be treated concurrently to ensure the best chance of recovery.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment to Heal from PTSD and Dissociative Amnesia

When post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative amnesia co-occur, dual diagnosis treatment—the treatment of two co-occurring conditions simultaneously—is effective in helping patients recover and heal. Around-the-clock support from medical professionals at residential mental health treatment centers makes these facilities an ideal option for individuals with a dual diagnosis. At an inpatient center, both co-occurring conditions may be addressed at the same time in a protective environment wholly geared toward comprehensive treatment and healing.

Treatment for PTSD is centered around various forms of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to introduce new methods of thinking and coping, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to learn healthy ways of managing flashbacks and unwanted memories, and exposure therapy to confront sources of trauma in a safe environment. Medication such as antidepressants may also be prescribed if the condition is accompanied by depression or anxiety.

As with treatment for PTSD, treatment for dissociative amnesia centers around various forms of therapy intended to help individuals cope with the distressing effects of memory loss and process the traumatic event responsible for triggering it. In many cases of dissociative amnesia, lost memories are recovered over time; professional mental health treatment will aid in this process while helping individuals regain a sense of normalcy.

For those who’ve experienced a traumatic ordeal, the long-term repercussions may come in the form of mental conditions such as dissociative amnesia and PTSD; the situation becomes increasingly complicated when these conditions co-occur. In order to recover and move on from the trauma, comprehensive dual diagnosis treatment is vital. A residential treatment center provides an ideal environment for distraction-free integrated treatment, surrounded by an inclusive community dedicated to healing. While trauma may affect you in multiple ways, its lingering effects don’t have to shape your life forever.

BrightQuest is a long-term residential treatment center for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned San Diego-area program and how we can help you or your loved one begin the journey toward recovery.