Dissociative amnesia disorder is a condition that causes memory loss. It often results from stress or trauma. Doctors diagnose it when they cannot link amnesia to other causes, such as brain injury or dementia.

People with dissociative amnesia may struggle to remember information about themselves. They may not remember their name, where they live, and who they are, among other details.

Stints of amnesia usually come on suddenly, and they can last hours, days, or, in rare cases, weeks.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), dissociative amnesia often occurs due to traumatic or stressful events, such as childhood trauma, abuse, and neglect. Dissociative amnesia can also stem from issues relating to personal identity and past experiences.

Read on to learn about how dissociative amnesia affects people, the different types of amnesia, what treatments are available, and the outlook for people with this condition.

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Dissociative amnesia is the most common dissociative disorder. People with this condition have episodes of amnesia, during which they forget important personal information.

These bouts of amnesia are extensive, and they go beyond the realm of normal forgetfulness. The information that people forget is often of a sensitive or traumatic nature.

People with dissociative amnesia disorder can experience different types of amnesia. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), people with this disorder can experience different types of amnesia: localized, selective, continuous, systematized, generalized, and dissociative fugue.

Localized amnesia

Localized amnesia means that someone cannot recall a specific event or series of events, which creates a gap in their memory.

These memory gaps often relate to stress or trauma. For example, someone who experienced childhood abuse may forget that entire chunk of time. Those with localized amnesia often have more than one episode of memory loss.

Selective amnesia

Selective amnesia involves losing only some of one’s memory from a certain period. For instance, this could mean forgetting some parts of a traumatic event, but not all of it.

A person can have both selective and localized amnesia.

Continuous amnesia

In this type of amnesia, a person forgets each new event as it occurs. A certain traumatic event may trigger this continuous forgetting.

Systematized amnesia

Systematized amnesia is a loss of memories related to a specific category or individual. For example, someone may forget all of their memories involving a particular person.

Generalized amnesia

This rare form of amnesia occurs when an individual completely forgets their own identity and life experiences. They can forget who they are, who they spoke to, where they went, what they did, and how they felt.

Some people with generalized amnesia may lose previously well-established skills.

This form of amnesia often occurs in sexual assault survivors, combat veterans, and those experiencing extreme stress or conflict.

Dissociative fugue

Dissociative fugue sometimes occurs in people with dissociative amnesia disorder. It is severe and rare, affecting just 0.2% of the general population.

It typically manifests as sudden, unexpected travel away from a person’s home. A person with dissociative fugue may wander about in a bewildered, confused manner. They may also have memory loss and an inability to recognize people they know.

It can last for just a few hours or go on for months.

During the fugue, people appear to act relatively normally. However, once it ends, they suddenly find themselves in a strange new situation. For instance, in some cases, a person will start a new job, assume a new identity, and essentially begin a new life. The end of the fugue may leave them feeling shame, depression, or grief.

The primary symptom of dissociative amnesia is memory loss that is more extensive than normal forgetfulness. People with dissociative amnesia forget crucial personal information. Amnesic episodes can last several minutes or many months.

Those who have recently experienced amnesia may feel confused or depressed.

A traumatic event or stressor usually causes dissociative amnesia. The trauma is typically something that the individual experienced during childhood, such as sexual abuse or emotional neglect.

People may also develop dissociative amnesia following a natural disaster, sexual assault, or military combat.

There is no average age of onset. People can experience multiple episodes of dissociative amnesia throughout their life.

Those who experienced physical or sexual abuse during childhood have an increased risk of dissociative amnesia. The most significant risk factor for dissociative amnesia is exposure to an overwhelming traumatic experience, either once or continually.

According to Johns Hopkins, some researchers believe that the condition is more common among sexual assault survivors and war veterans. Others think it mainly affects vulnerable individuals with other preexisting mental health conditions.

Although research has not revealed what exactly causes dissociative amnesia, it is clear that the disorder has a relationship to trauma.

Doctors diagnose dissociative amnesia based on whether or not an individual meets the criteria set out in the DSM-5. The criteria are:

  • A person cannot recall important personal or family information.
  • A person’s symptoms cause distress.
  • A person’s symptoms prevent them from functioning normally in social settings.

A doctor will also perform a medical and physical examination to rule out other potential causes.

They can use MRI scans to check for structural causes, blood and urine tests to analyze toxic causes, and an electroencephalogram (EEG) to rule out a seizure disorder.

They will also ensure that a person’s symptoms are not due to a medication or psychiatric disorder.

The treatment for dissociative amnesia depends on the severity of a person’s memory loss. If the memory loss spans a short period, supportive therapy is usually the first-line treatment.

Individuals with more severe memory loss require more care, including a safe, supportive environment, which helps them naturally recover lost memories.

If that is unsuccessful, a person can undergo hypnosis. Doctors use hypnosis carefully because retrieving these memories can also lead to memories of a traumatic situation.

Once the individual has recovered from amnesia, doctors may use various types of psychotherapy to reduce the frequency of these episodes and help the person cope. These approaches include:

There are currently no known ways of preventing dissociative amnesia.

However, if the person receives treatment as soon as symptoms present, it can limit future amnesic episodes. Intervening immediately after the traumatic event has happened may also reduce the likelihood of developing these disorders.

The outlook for people with dissociative amnesia is good. If an individual is no longer in a stressful or traumatic situation, treatment can help them recover lost memories.

Memories can return suddenly or gradually, even without treatment. However, some individuals never recover their missing memories.

Whether or not someone’s memories return depends on their stress levels, the conflicts associated with their trauma, and their overall mental adjustment. Timely treatment can significantly improve someone’s outlook.

Dissociative amnesia is a disorder causing amnesic episodes that make a person forget important personal information, including, in severe cases, their identity.

It often stems from extreme stress, childhood abuse, or another traumatic experience.

Doctors use thorough clinical and physical evaluations to diagnose dissociative amnesia and rule out other conditions that may be causing a person’s symptoms.

Treatment involves creating a safe, comfortable space that will allow memories to return. In some cases, doctors will recommend hypnosis and psychotherapy.

Most individuals with dissociative amnesia recover their memories once their amnesia resolves.