Is Your Forgetfulness Actually Trauma-Related Dissociative Amnesia?
Significant memory loss linked to trauma may be dissociative amnesia, a kind of dissociative disorder. Keep reading to learn about common causes, signs, and treatments.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
December 4, 2023
Table of Contents
Everyone knows what it’s like to experience forgetfulness. You may not remember the name of your third-grade teacher or can’t recall what you had for lunch yesterday. While some forgetfulness is considered normal, significant memory loss can be a symptom of a more serious underlying condition.
One such condition is known as dissociative amnesia, a kind of significant memory loss that happens as an after-effect of a traumatic or stressful event. Below, we’ll delve into the connection between past trauma and dissociative amnesia, highlighting how past traumatic experiences can cause an enduring negative impact on how our memory functions. We’ll also explore treatment options for the condition.
What is dissociative amnesia?
As mentioned, dissociative amnesia is a mental health condition marked by significant autobiographical memory loss, where a person struggles to recall important personal information or experiences about themselves and their life, particularly surrounding traumatic or stressful events. For example, if a person was the victim of childhood abuse, they may have very little memory of their early childhood years. This altered memory of the past can serve as a coping mechanism to lessen the emotional pain of past trauma.
At its core, dissociative amnesia is a form of dissociative disorder, a category of mental health conditions that involve experiencing a loss of connection between thoughts, memories, feelings, surroundings, behavior, and identity. Dissociative amnesia can also impact a person’s identity, daily functioning, and ability to form new memories. Experts believe that dissociative amnesia is under-reported, but estimates suggest 0.2% to 7.3% of the general population are affected by it.
What causes dissociative amnesia?
Dissociative amnesia, along with other dissociative disorder symptoms, is caused by profound psychological distress (usually in response to past trauma) rather than structural damage to the brain or excessive substance use. Traumatic brain injury, stroke, and various other medical conditions can lead to some kinds of amnesia (memory loss) but not dissociative amnesia.
During a traumatic event, the brain handles and remembers sensory information differently than normal. In other words, the experience of trauma can change your brain chemistry. The stress response triggered by trauma can impact the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for forming and recalling memories, affecting its ability to accurately store and remember memories. This change in brain response helps explain why people with trauma-related disorders often experience memory processing and recall issues—possibly including dissociative amnesia.
Types of dissociative amnesia
The amount of memory loss that someone experiences with dissociative amnesia varies. The severity is often affected by factors like how intense and long-lasting the traumatic or stressful events were, as well as a person’s overall resilience and coping mechanisms. Dissociative amnesia can manifest differently over time. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a guide for identifying mental health disorders, lists the following different types of dissociative amnesia memory loss:
The most common form of memory loss associated with dissociative amnesia, referring to a failure to recall events during a specific period of time. For example, someone might forget details of a car crash they were in but remember events before and after the crash.
A person can recall some, but not all, parts of a specific time or traumatic event. For example, someone who endured sexual abuse may remember the broad outlines of the traumatic event but have gaps in memory regarding specific details or emotions.
A rare and most severe form of memory loss associated with dissociative amnesia, referring to a complete loss of memory of one’s life history. People may lose general knowledge of history, practical skills, and their sense of who they are. For example, someone might struggle to remember their name, family members, or even basic information about their past.
Loss of memory for a specific category or theme of information. For example, a person may forget all details related to their professional life while retaining memories of their personal life.
Forgetting new events as they occur, usually in the period of time after enduring a traumatic situation. Continuous amnesia limits a person’s ability to form new memories, making it difficult to recall recent events, conversations, or new information.
An uncommon subtype of dissociative amnesia where a person finds themselves in a place with no memory of traveling there. Dissociative fugue is extremely rare, and most commonly occurs in people with dissociative identity disorder (DID), a dissociative disorder formerly known as multiple personality disorder.
Dissociative amnesia and mental health
Since dissociative amnesia is a response to trauma, research shows it often co-occurs with other trauma-related mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and personality disorders. Chronic stress and trauma can in-and-of-themselves lead to a wide array of other mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.
Also, while not a diagnosable mental health condition, the effects of trauma and memory loss associated with dissociative amnesia can profoundly affect a person’s sense of self and their identity. Feeling confused about your life and history can cause significant distress and lead to struggles with mental health and well-being.
What are the treatments for dissociative amnesia?
If you are experiencing memory loss that is creating difficulties in your daily life, it is important that you reach out to a medical professional who can conduct a thorough assessment and provide an accurate diagnosis. If you’re diagnosed with dissociative amnesia, treatment typically targets the underlying cause—in most cases, trauma.
Trauma-informed talk therapy
Developing healthy coping mechanisms
Medication for co-occuring conditions
Different forms of psychotherapy (talk therapy) have been shown to help with the recovery of past memories related to trauma. In dissociative amnesia treatment, a provider can use different types of trauma-informed treatments, like trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), prolonged exposure therapy, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). These techniques have shown to be effective in managing personality disorders and other trauma-related conditions. Also, developing healthy coping mechanisms for stress and trauma is often a part of treatment. This may include mindfulness techniques, relaxation exercises, and self-care practices, all of which can help with symptom management.
While there’s no specific medication approved for the treatment of dissociative amnesia itself, medication may be prescribed to manage an associated symptom like depression, anxiety, or insomnia. A healthcare provider will carefully consider a person’s overall mental health needs in developing a treatment plan.
How Charlie Health can help
If past trauma is impacting your memory and causing significant distress, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people dealing with complex mental health conditions, including trauma-related disorders and dissociative symptoms. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based trauma therapy, like trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing dissociative symptoms is possible. Fill out this short form to begin healing today.