Dissociative amnesia occurs when a person blocks out certain events, often associated with stress or trauma, leaving the person unable to remember important personal information.
Dissociative amnesia is a condition in which you can’t remember important information about your life. This forgetting may be limited to certain specific areas (thematic) or may include much of your life history and/or identity (general).
In some rare cases called dissociative fugue, you may forget most or all of your personal information (name, personal history, friends), and may sometimes even travel to a different location and adopt a completely new identity. In all cases of dissociative amnesia, you have a much greater memory loss than would be expected in the course of normal forgetting.
Dissociative amnesia is one of a group of conditions called dissociative disorders. Dissociative disorders are mental illnesses in which there’s a breakdown of mental functions that normally operate smoothly, such as memory, consciousness or awareness, and identity and/or perception.
Dissociative symptoms can be mild, but they can also be so severe that they keep you from being able to function. They can also affect relationships and work activities.
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Dissociative amnesia is rare. It affects about 1% of men and people assigned male at birth and 2.6% of women and people assigned female at birth in the general population. The environment also plays a role. Rates of dissociative amnesia tend to increase after natural disasters and during war.
Dissociative amnesia has been linked to overwhelming stress, which may be caused by traumatic events such as war, abuse, accidents or disasters. A person with dissociative amnesia may have experienced the trauma or witnessed it. There may be a genetic (inherited) connection in dissociative amnesia, as close relatives often have the tendency to develop amnesia.
There are three types, or patterns, of dissociative amnesia:
Dissociative amnesia is different from amnesia caused by medical problems, such as illnesses, strokes or brain injuries. In medically caused amnesia, recovering memories is rare and generally a slow and gradual process.
Most cases of dissociative amnesia are relatively short. Often, memories return suddenly and completely. Memory recovery may be triggered by something in the person’s surroundings or in therapy.
Also, people who experience medical amnesia are upset by their memory loss; whereas most people with dissociative amnesia seem to have surprisingly little concern over their amnesia.
If a person has symptoms of dissociative amnesia, a healthcare provider will perform a complete medical history (based on what is known) and physical examination. Although there aren’t any laboratory tests to diagnose dissociative disorders, they might use blood tests or imaging (X-rays, CT scans or MRIs) to make sure the person doesn’t have a physical illness or side effects from a medication.
If the person doesn’t have a physical illness, they might be referred to a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or psychiatric social worker. This caregiver performs a clinical interview to get a full picture of the person’s experiences and current functioning. Some psychiatrists and psychologists may use specialized tests or a standard interview such as the Structured Clinical Interview for Dissociation (SCID-D).
The goals of treatment for dissociative amnesia are to relieve symptoms, make sure you and those around you are safe, and “reconnect” you with your lost memories. Treatment also aims to help you:
The best treatment approach depends on the person, the type of amnesia and how severe the symptoms are. Treatment most likely includes some combination of the following methods:
People with dissociative amnesia usually respond well to treatment. But progress and success depend on many things, including the person’s life situation and if they have support from family and friends.
For most people with dissociative amnesia, memory eventually returns, sometimes slowly and sometimes suddenly, which makes the overall outlook very good. In some cases, however, the person is never able to fully recover their lost memories.
To improve a person’s outlook, it’s important to treat any dissociative amnesia problem as soon as possible. It’s also important to treat any other issues or complications, such as depression, anxiety or substance abuse.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/23/2020.
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