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What is Dissociative Amnesia? + The Treatment Options

What dissociative amnesia is, why it happens, and offer five ways for you to better manage it. So make sure you stick around until the end to see the best way to manage dissociative amnesia. 

Dissociative Amnesia

As with all diagnostic-based articles, let's jump into how it's diagnosed first. The DSM states that dissociative amnesia occurs when we, number one, have an inability to recall autobiographical information, usually from traumatic or stressful events, and it's inconsistent with ordinary forgetting, meaning we can't remember things that happened to us and it usually happens during times of trauma or stress. Number two, the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. 

Now, this criterion is attached to almost all diagnoses because, in order for something to be diagnosed and treated, it has to be affecting our ability to live our lives and to do what we need to do every day. The third criterion is that this amnesia must also not be attributed to any drugs or alcohol that we may be on or any neurological or other medical condition. And the fourth and final criterion is that the dissociative amnesia must not be better explained by dissociative identity disorder, which I'll be doing another video on soon, so make sure you're subscribed so you don't miss out. It also can't be attributed to PTSD or acute stress disorder or other mental illnesses. The key here is the phrase "better explained," meaning that this amnesia can't only be part of another diagnosis. It has to occur on its own at least some of the time.
What is Dissociative Amnesia & What are the Treatment Options?
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What does Dissociative Amnesia look like?

This amnesia can be difficult to deal with because, as one member of our community shared, it's like "even though we know the days happened logically, it's like we slept through them."

Dissociative amnesia can also lead to what is called dissociative fugues, which is when we wander or travel to find ourselves or to figure out what we can't remember. 

TYPES OF Dissociative Amnesia

Dissociative Fugue?

An example of this would be, if I suffered from dissociative amnesia, I could leave work one day, not go home, but get on a bus, and head to another city or state. And while I'm there, I get a new job. I start a new life. And if Sean came looking for me or if the police found me, I wouldn't recognize Sean or have any memory of my leaving. And these dissociative fugues aren't very common, only occurring in 0.2% of the population, so don't worry that if you struggle with dissociation, you're gonna just up and leave your life one day. It's just another portion of this diagnosis.

Localized Dissociative Amnesia

Dissociative amnesia can be localized, meaning that we can't recall events during a specific period of time like we don't remember the months surrounding that time when we were abused, which is the most common. It can also be selective, meaning that we can recall some of what happened, but not all of the events during that stressful or traumatic time, like we remember one instance of abuse but have trouble recalling another that happened only a week later. Another member of our community explained it as, quote, "Even though you went through the bad/traumatizing experience, you can't remember all the details of it." Also, know that we can have both localized and selective amnesia. Just important to remember.

Generalized Amnesia

Our dissociative amnesia can also be more general, and we can completely forget our life history. It can also lead to us losing previous knowledge about the world, the meaning of life, and any well-learned skills that we had. This usually comes on quickly and can cause us to be confused, disoriented, and even find ourselves wandering aimlessly. I know that sounds scary, but because it's so noticeable, people with generalized amnesia usually get help extremely quickly, and it's also good to know that generalized amnesia is incredibly rare, although the DSM does state that it may be more common among combat veterans, sexual assault victims, and individuals experiencing extreme emotional stress or conflict.

Systematized Amnesia

There's also systematized amnesia where we lose memory for specific categories of our life, like if we can't remember anything involving our family or the one cousin who harmed us or if any memory surrounding school just isn't there.

Continuous Amnesia

And finally, there's continuous amnesia where we forget new events as they occur like we aren't able to form memories. I've had this happen with one of my patients who was struggling with her relationship with her mom. Her mother was emotionally abusive her entire life, but she still wanted to find a way to have some contact with her mom. However, every time she talked to her, she couldn't recall what was being said, and I would ask her how it went in our session together and she said it was just gone like it never happened. She knew she spoke to her mom but couldn't remember what was said. Most people with dissociative amnesia are unaware or only partially aware of their memory problems, just like this member of our community shared. They said, quote, "It's funny, it doesn't really feel like anything because you don't know about what you don't remember."

Those of us with localized amnesia can even minimize the importance of our memory loss and can become uncomfortable when we are pressed to acknowledge it or to remember something, which is how this differs from someone having a spotty memory or just being forgetful. It's like we never knew what happened, so we don't even know that we don't remember it. Does that make sense? Whereas someone who's forgetful can become frustrated with their inability to remember that person's name, right, or the directions to their old home. They used to know it and are aware of that fact but just can't quite pull it out of their memory. It also differs from permanent amnesias due to brain damage because it always has the potential to be retrieved through talk therapy and other mental health treatments.

First, dissociative amnesia most commonly occurs during stressful or traumatic times. Therefore, the best treatments are trauma-based ones.

TREATMENT of Dissociative Amnesia

Talk Therapy

This means that traditional talk therapy can be beneficial as a starting point. This is where we talk through the distressing or traumatizing event and piece it together into a story and tell that story until it's not as emotionally charged or upsetting, and our therapist will usually help us come up with some the ways to calm our system down or feel okay while pushing us to continue talking through the trauma. Overall, research finds that talk therapy is effective for about 40% of people with a history of trauma. This leads nicely into our second treatment option: 

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing)

EMDR or what's otherwise known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. This treatment focuses on what's called bilateral stimulation, meaning we stimulate our nervous system in a rhythmic right-to-left pattern. This can be done through tapping on our left and right sides, using headphones and it beeping on our left and then right ears, or even through buzzers or tappers that vibrate in our hands from left to right. Now, this bilateral stimulation is done while we recall distressing situations, images, or memories. In theory, this gives our brain another chance to process the trauma. Third, CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy has also been shown to be effective. 

CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)

CBT works by having us identify unhelpful thinking patterns and beliefs about ourselves. Then we work to change those patterns by incorporating more helpful and healthy therapeutic techniques. A fourth potential therapy is DBT or dialectical behavior therapy, which has been shown to be helpful as well. It is similar to CBT, but with a bit more emotion regulation and mindfulness added in.

DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy)

It works by helping us become more aware of how we're feeling before we are overcome by it, and it also offers helpful tools to better manage impulses and effectively navigate our relationships. It's been very useful for those of us who have a history of trauma or anyone with a borderline personality disorder. 

Medication

Fifth and finally, medication can be effective, too. While there isn't a medication that's indicated for use in those with dissociative amnesia, it can help with other symptoms that may be making our dissociation worse. 

These are things like anxiety or depressive symptoms, or maybe we have trouble with our sleep. Seeing a psychiatrist and trying medication could be beneficial. I hope you find that helpful. If you feel like I left something out or you'd like to share what dissociative amnesia feels like to you, please feel free to do so in the comments down below.