Dissociative Amnesia

Amnesia is a condition in which memory is disturbed or lost. The causes of amnesia have traditionally been divided into the “organic” or the “functional”. Dissociative amnesia is one example of a functional type, meaning there is no underlying physical cause (such as brain injury).

Dissociative amnesia is classified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), as one of the dissociative disorders. I have already discussed dissociation in general and the idea that dissociative disorders  are usually associated with trauma in the recent or distant past, or with an intense internal conflict that forces the mind to separate incompatible or unacceptable knowledge, information, or feelings. Dissociative amnesia is considered a disorder when the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
Dissociative amnesia as a symptom often occurs in people diagnosed with other dissociative disorders (like dissociative fugue and dissociative identity disorder) . If episodes of dissociative amnesia occur only in the context of these disorders, a separate diagnosis of dissociative amnesia is not made.

In dissociative amnesia, the person is unable to remember personal information. They are aware that they have forgotten information, but do not know what they have forgotten. In some instances this loss can lead to the erasure of a vast amount of memory, so that people even forget basic facts about their identity, such as where they live or what their name is.  The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation describes the most common amnesia presentations seen in therapy with dissociative disorder clients:

…the amnesias are often an important event that is forgotten, such as a wedding, or birthday party that was attended, or a block of time, from minutes to years. More typically, there are micro-amnesias where the discussion engaged in is not remembered, or the content of a conversation is forgotten from one moment to the next. Some people report that these kinds of experiences often leave them scrambling to figure out what was being discussed. Meanwhile, they try not to let the person with whom they are talking realize they haven’t a clue as to what was just said (Maldonado et al., 2002; Steinberg et al., 1993; Steinberg, 1995)

People with dissociative amnesia usually report a gap or series of gaps in their recollection of their life history. The gaps are usually related to episodes or abuse or equally severe trauma. In this way, like with dissociation in general, dissociative amnesia is definitely a survival mechanism and serves to protect the individual from material that might have been to overwhelming to cope with.
It is important to understand that dissociative amnesia serves a protective function. It protects the individual from the consequences of extreme trauma and catastrophic fear. the flip side is that memory loss can prevent the development of appropriate coping mechanisms, such as managing painful emotions. Remember, even if traumatic events or painful emotions are not remembered, they are often impacting you adversely at some level.

Dissociative amnesia can be addressed as part of trauma therapy. In fact, as you work on developing basic coping skills and establish a safe enough present environment, you may find yourself getting access to previously blocked information. You may become ready to know what has been forgotten when you have enough support internally and externally to cope with the information in the present.

Kathleen Young Psy.D.

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10 Responses to Dissociative Amnesia

  1. Lily says:

    This was one of my sticking points earlier on in therapy. I have a block of time that is unaccounted for during an instance of abuse. I can tell you everything that led up to and everything directly after with frightening accuracy, but that spot in between is a fog. It’s like I fell asleep.

    I obsessed over it for a long time. Couldn’t get past it.

    It’s still there, but my game plan is different. I’m not pushing anymore. If I’m supposed to know, that door will open.. but I no longer will be doing the pushing and shoving.

    • I can really get that, Lily! Especially since one of my big coping strategies is “knowing” things!

      With traumatic memory loss it does indeed seem that the harder you push to know, the more elusive the material remains.

      I really like how you describe where you are at about it now! It sounds like a very gentle, trusting your own process sort of stance. I think that is just fantastic. 🙂

  2. I to had to leave the notion that I will remember everything behind me in order to move on. Many of us realized that for some events, We just were not present and that is good enough for me. The biggest problem that effects me still at this age is the fact that having to hide so much of the forgetting from the world for so long didn’t create the best coping skills for me now. I wish there was a good therapist who understood that were I live now. The place I have access to doesn’t seem to have time for long term dissociate training. Very hard for me

  3. Pingback: Understanding Dissociation « Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma in Chicago

  4. Shon says:

    In our Abnormal Psych Class today the question was asked, if a homosexual gets amnesia will they remember their sexual orientation? I can see the argument on both sides. What about Dissociative Fugue? Has there been cases where in their relocation they also change their sexual orientation?

  5. Partygirlturnedsensible says:

    I am losing time. That’s the only way I can put it. Sorry. An example may help so here goes. I’m listening to a girl explain what different activities are in a circuit training class, I thought she had missed out one item but it turns out I just don’t remember the explanation. Another time I’m watching swimming on tv and I have no recollection of two lengths that were swam. I know I missed it coz I only saw three swimmers and there are definitely 4 in the relay. I was diagnosed with PND after my second child and am taking Paroxetine although looking back I have had depression for as long as I remember. Could these episodes be dissociation?

    • It could be, among many other things. Which is why diagnosis/assessment via website is such a bad idea. 🙂 Please seek out a consultation (at least) with a licensed therapist!

      • Anonymous says:

        That’s what I am doing but my appts not til thursday. I can’t stop thinking I may have dissociative disoreder. I’ve always told people I have a bad memory but it literally forget conversation moments after having them. People have told me things I’ve said and done I don’t remember. I was neglected abused and I think raped twice I have memories I jus can’t seem to remember what happen just befor and after. It reminds me a cd when it skip it tries to play for a few second then suddenly your at the next scene. I found out recently I have sighs of ocd the thoughts and images that are recurrent and undwanted i try to block out. I read that ocd is common is dissociate disorder I am worried these thoughts could they be memories. Things I don’t remember I don’t know have happen?I have no one to talk to parents are indenial

      • I know it can be scary to explore these symptoms! I hope your therapy appointment went very well and was the start of getting the support you need to sort this all out.

  6. Pingback: Dissociative Disorders and DSM-5 | Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma in Tucson

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