Dissociative Amnesia: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

The dissociative amnesia happens if you forget some important personal information, usually associated with a stressful or traumatic event.

Memory loss goes beyond normal forgetfulness and may include forgetting long periods of time related to the traumatic or stressful event.

Dissociative amnesia

In this type of amnesia there is no loss of information due to a brain injury or illness, but the memory still exists.

It can be said that the memory is “blocked” in the mind of the person, being able to resurge from some stimulus as a place or event.

It is more common in women than in men and its frequency tends to increase in stressful periods, such as natural disasters or wars.

Characteristics of dissociative amnesia

Dissociative or psychogenic amnesia is characterized by the presence of retrograde amnesia (inability to recover memories prior to the onset of amnesia) and by the absence of anterograde amnesia (inability to create new memories).

The main characteristic is that the access to autobiographical memory is blocked, whereas the degree of short-term memory blocking, semantic memory and procedural memory vary among different cases .

The memory lock can be:

  • Specific to a situation, a particular accident.
  • Global loss, referring to long periods of time.


The main symptom of dissociative amnesia is the sudden inability to remember past experiences or personal information.

Some people with this disorder may also appear confused or have anxiety or depression.


This disorder has been linked to a high degree of stress that can come from traumatic events such as abuse, natural disasters, accidents or wars.

The organic causes of amnesia can be difficult to detect, and sometimes physical and psychological triggers can occur at the same time.

The difficulty in finding an organic cause may result in the conclusion that amnesia is psychological, although it is possible that some organic causes may be difficult to detect.

Unlike organic amnesia, dissociative or psychogenic seems to occur when there is no structural damage or obvious damage to the brain.

Because organic amnesia is sometimes difficult to detect, distinguishing between organic and dissociative is not easy.

The main difference between organic and dissociative amnesia is that in the second there is a loss of biographical and non-semantic memory (meanings).

Diagnostic criteria according to DSM-IV

  1. A) The predominant alteration consists of one or more episodes of inability to remember important personal information, usually an event of a traumatic or stressful nature, which is too broad to be explained from ordinary oblivion.
  2. B) The alteration does not appear exclusively in dissociative identity disorder, dissociative leakage, post-traumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder or somatization disorder , and is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (drugs or drugs) or a medical or neurological disease.
  3. C) Symptoms cause significant clinical discomfort or social, occupational, or other impairment of the individual’s activity.

If there are symptoms of dissociative amnesia, the health professional will begin an evaluation with the medical history and a physical examination of the affected person.

There are no specific medical tests, although neuroimaging, electroencephalogram or blood tests may be used to rule out other medical conditions or drug side effects.

Medical conditions such as brain injuries, brain diseases, sleep deprivation, and alcohol or drug abuse can cause symptoms similar to those of this disorder.

Also Read: Conversion Disorder Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

If no physical causes are found, the person may be referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist who has the experience and training to evaluate, diagnose and intervene.


The first goal of treatment is to decrease symptoms and control problems arising from the disorder.

The person is then assisted in expressing and processing painful memories, developing new coping strategies, restoring normal functioning, and improving personal relationships.

The treatment model depends on the specific symptoms and the situation of the person:

  • Cognitive therapy: change of irrational or dysfunctional thoughts that result in negative feelings and behaviors.
  • Medication: There is no specific medication to treat this disorder, although it can benefit a person who also suffers from anxiety or depression.
  • Family therapy: educating the family about the disorder, improving skills to adapt to it.
  • Another type of therapies to help the person express their feelings and thoughts.
  • Clinical Hypnosis: Includes intense relaxation and concentration techniques to get an altered state of consciousness, allowing the person to explore their thoughts, emotions and memories that they have been able to block from their conscious mind. Its use must be studied, since there are several risks such as the creation of false memories or remembrance of traumatic experiences.


The prognosis depends on several factors, such as the personal situation, availability of support resources and personal response to treatment.

In most people with dissociative amnesia memory returns over time, although in some cases recovery is not possible.


Prevention itself is not possible, although it is helpful to start treatment as soon as symptoms are observed.

It is important therefore immediate intervention after a stressful or traumatic experience to reduce the possibility of such a disorder.