What Are The Symptoms Of Dissociative Amnesia?

By Sarah Fader

Updated December 17, 2018

Reviewer Erika Schad, LCP, CWLC

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What is dissociative amnesia? It is memory disorder which includes sudden regressive intermittent loss of memory that can last for a few hours to a few years. This episodic memory loss includes retrospective memory gaps. Dissociative amnesia occurs when a person blocks out certain information, which usually associated with a stressful or traumatic event. As such the individual is unable to remember important personal information. With this disorder, memory loss extends beyond normal forgetfulness. The memory loss usually centers around personal information and information about a traumatic or stressful event or situation. This dissociative amnesia definition also includes dissociative fugue in the DSM V.

Dissociative amnesia or psychogenic amnesia, is non-organic, meaning, it is not caused by brain injury, brain lesions, or any other type of physical brain problem. This type of amnesia can be situation specific such as loss of memory leading up to a traumatic event or it can be global-transient, meaning there are just large gaps in the autobiographical memory. Both global-transient, and situation-specific fall under the same diagnosis of dissociative amnesia.

The loss of autobiographical memory associated with dissociative amnesia is also present in organic amnesia, the difference between the two types of amnesia is the cause. Dissociative amnesia has a psychological cause, and this cause can be difficult to find because of the memory loss itself. This condition requires a skilled psychiatrist or psychologist to study the case and make an informed diagnosis.

The causation of dissociative amnesia may be difficult to pinpoint, the absence of brain damage, brain lesion, or another brain issue may not be readily obvious so ruling out organic amnesia can be hard. The difficulty in diagnosis stems from the inability, in some cases, to detect an organic trigger for the disorder. It is always important to consider all options when searching for a mental health care provider. It is a good idea to seek advice and guidance for finding a qualified licensed mental health care professional. These types of websites also provide licensed therapists and counselors for treatment of dissociative disorders.

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Diagnosis of Dissociative Amnesia

To properly diagnose dissociative amnesia, a functional assessment of brain function can be performed with imaging techniques such as MRI, PET, and EEG. These imaging techniques are used to rule out organic amnesia. Although ruling out organic amnesia is used to diagnose dissociative amnesia, there is evidence that an organic cause may still be viable even though it is not showing up in imaging tests.

A diagnosis of dissociative amnesia is given after careful consideration of the symptoms, testing such as MRI, PET, and EEG, and the presence of autobiographical memory loss. After diagnosing, a psychologist or psychiatrist will work with the patient to try and figure out what caused the dissociative amnesia in the first place. Since amnesia can be a result of brain injury, brain disease, or structural damage, many psychiatrists and psychologists will continue to order testing periodically. Sometimes the damage is so mild that it takes time for the damage to be seen, this is especially true for growths or cell changes.

Diagnosing DA or dissociative amnesia has many gray areas. Those with DA may have a significant loss of memory that was triggered by a traumatic event, but this lack of personal identity memory may be the only symptom. Those with this disorder show no signs of any other cognitive functional deficiencies, just the autobiographical memory loss. Short-term memory may be completely intact and the memory needed to learn new things also remains intact.

A diagnosis of dissociative amnesia is controversial. Memories are stored in a specific place in the brain, damage to that area can result in amnesia; the lack of damage to memory centers is the very thing that triggers controversy. For those suffering from the memory loss and associated problems related to that memory loss, diagnosis is important for receiving the proper care. To many professionals, amnesia is amnesia, but to others, it is a separate diagnosis.

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Regardless of the controversy, diagnosis is still important to patient care. After some research into the symptoms and cause, a psychiatrist or psychologist will provide a diagnosis. This diagnosis will make a difference in the therapy received, and for many, no therapy or care is necessary because the memory comes back all on its own without any obvious damage to the retrieved memory.

Dissociative Amnesia Symptoms

The most obvious symptom of dissociative amnesia is long-term memory loss and memory loss relating to personal identity. Notably, the memory loss can last anywhere from an hour to a few years. An individual with dissociative amnesia may know where they are and how they got there, but they do not remember who they are.

Most cases of dissociative amnesia have other significant psychiatric disorders. These other disorders must be treated to stave off more episodes of amnesia. These other psychiatric disorders are grouped into "clusters," the clusters contain several different personality disorders. There are ten different types of personality disorder broken down into three clusters.

Personality disorder clusters and symptoms

  • Cluster A
    • Paranoid
    • Schizotypal
    • Schizoid

An individual who falls into the cluster A group are perceived as eccentric and odd.

  • Cluster B
    • Anti-social
    • Histrionic
    • Narcissistic
    • Borderline

Individuals in the cluster B group are perceived as erratic, dramatic, and theatrical.

  • Cluster C
    • Obsessive Compulsive
    • Dependent
    • Avoidant

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Individuals in the cluster C group are perceived as being fearful, compulsive, and anxious.

Individuals diagnosed with dissociative amnesia show symptoms of and can fall into both the cluster B and cluster C groups. Cluster B includes the symptoms of anti-social behavior, histrionic, narcissistic, and borderline behaviors. If an individual with dissociative amnesia shows symptoms of cluster B personality disorders, it becomes important to treat the cluster symptoms as well as the dissociative amnesia.

Individuals who show symptoms of cluster C personality disorders will be treated for the symptoms of cluster C and the dissociative amnesia. Symptoms for dissociative amnesia are long-term memory loss and autobiographical memory loss but because this condition is accompanied by other personality disorders, these disorders must be treated and this, in turn, treats the dissociative amnesia because the cluster symptoms may be the trigger for the memory loss.

Those with personality disorders have trauma in their past that has manifested in the disorders they have. There are other reasons for the cluster personality disorders, but trauma is the most common trigger, trauma is also the most common trigger for dissociative amnesia. Only a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist can properly work through the symptoms and provide an accurate diagnosis of DA. Once the symptoms are understood, and diagnosis is provided, treatment for this condition can be planned.

Dissociative Amnesia Treatments

Treatment for dissociative amnesia depends largely on the other personality disorders present. There is no real treatment for memory loss, only time will restore the memory in those with DA, but treatment for the other personality disorders can help stop memory loss from occurring again. There are different treatments for the many personality disorders that accompany DA; the treatment will match the disorders that are present. The most common types of treatment for personality disorders are medicine and different types of psychotherapy.

Treatments for Cluster A personality disorders

Anti-psychotic medications are usually prescribed for personality disorders in cluster A. The anti-psychotics help relieve the symptoms and improve the prognosis for psychotherapy. There are several types of antipsychotic medications used; the psychiatrist will choose the one best suited for the symptoms.

Supportive psychotherapy is suggested for those with cluster A personality disorders. Supportive psychotherapy includes and integrates CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and interpersonal therapeutic techniques. The point of these therapies is to reinforce/support the healthy patterns of behavior and through while reducing the negative ones that produce the symptoms.

Treatments for Cluster B personality disorders

Anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics are the medications usually prescribed for personality disorders in cluster B. Bi-polar and depression may accompany the symptoms in cluster B personality disorders, and anti-depressants and mood stabilizers can help reduce these symptoms. Anti-psychotics are prescribed to reduce the symptoms of all four types of personality disorders associated with cluster B types.

Psychotherapy and group therapy are the most common psychosocial therapies used as a treatment for those with cluster B personality disorders. The use of medication will help reduce the symptoms and help further the psychotherapy techniques. Psychotherapy includes CBT and one-on-one counseling and group therapy should be structured.

Treatments for Cluster C personality disorders

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Anxiety and depression medication is the most commonly prescribed medications for those with cluster C personality disorders. These medications help to alleviate the anxiety and depression that accompanies these disorders. Relieving anxiety and depression is important for treating these disorders with psychotherapeutic techniques.

Psychotherapy, such as CBT exposure therapy, is common for reducing fearful symptoms. Additionally. structured group therapy is also helpful for treating the anxiety and depression that accompanies these personality disorders. CBT therapies or cognitive behavioral therapies can differ depending on the symptoms and actual personality disorder present. Anxiety and depression medication help to reduce the stress caused by CBT exposure therapy and the interpersonal interactions in group therapy settings.

Treatment for Dissociative Amnesia

The treatment for dissociative amnesia involves treating the cluster of personality disorders present in the individual. The memory loss will return, and the treatments are aimed at keeping future memory loss to a minimum. The many intricacies of dissociative amnesia require the help of a licensed psychiatric professional; this disorder will not go away on its own.

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