Dissociative Amnesia – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Amnesic disorders are a group of disorders that are characterized by severe memory deficits and occur in vigilant individuals who are commonly not affected by any substantial cognitive impairment. Among a great number of classifications of amnesia, dissociative amnesia refers to the inability to consciously remember episodic-autobiographical information and generally arises in the absence of severe brain damage (Staniloiu & Markowitsch, 2014). Similar to other classes of amnesia, dissociative amnesia is marked by a mild to severe functional impairment and typically derives after major traumatic experiences and recurrent psychological stresses. Based on substantial research, three patterns of dissociative amnesia have been found, the first one being localized dissociative amnesia, which refers to the memory loss of a particular moment of one’s life or certain areas of knowledge due to incomplete encoding processes (Cleveland Clinic, 2020). By contrast, generalized dissociative amnesia describes the loss of memory for central parts of one’s life, for instance being incapable of recalling one’s name or current occupation, and is generally related to retrieval issues. Perhaps the most severe form of dissociative amnesia is classified as dissociative fugue, a state of complete loss of personal information, during which a person may even suddenly travel to various places and adopt a new identity (Cleveland Clinic, 2020).

Typically associated with a retrograde memory deficit, individuals affected by dissociative amnesia are usually able to recover previously “inaccessible information of traumatic events” (Staniloiu & Markowitsch, 2014). Although episodic-autobiographical memory is severely impaired in patients affected by dissociative amnesia, semantic knowledge, the long-term acquisition of new information, intelligence, and language are commonly preserved. Importantly, dissociative amnesia may occur unexpectedly, as some individuals have reported being unable to recall certain personal information after a relatively long period of time has passed since the psychologically traumatic incident has occurred (Staniloiu & Markowitsch, 2014). Moreover, patients’ geographical environment is a highly determining factor of whether individuals may develop dissociative amnesia or not, as people living in regions of war or common natural disasters reported increasing cases of dissociative amnesia.

The assessment of dissociative amnesia includes psychological, physical, and neurological evaluations as well as laboratory examinations, “neuropsychological investigations and psychiatric questionnaires” (Staniloiu & Markowitsch, 2014) or interviews, such as the Autobiographical Memory Interview or the Structural Clinical Interview for Dissociation (Cleveland Clinic, 2020). Based on the afore-stated symptoms of dissociative amnesia, mental health professionals are able to make a diagnosis and subsequently develop a treatment plan. A variety of treatment options are able to be applied, such as psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectic-behavior therapy, family therapy, or creative therapies (Cleveland Clinic, 2020). The initial goals of each of the afore-stated types of therapies include stabilizing and ensuring patient security as well as decreasing symptoms and in turn enhancing patients’ “psychological, social and vocational well-being” (Staniloiu & Markowitsch, 2014). Additional treatment objectives include developing coping skills to properly manage traumatic events, enhancing personal relationships, and restoring normal functions (Cleveland Clinic, 2020).

It is truly unbelievable that the human brain is able to block traumatic and painful memories from consciousness, as means of protection. Through this research, I was familiarized with the varying degrees of dissociative amnesia and the treatment options available. I was truly intrigued by the fact that some patients are able to develop a very severe form of dissociative amnesia, referred to as dissociative fugue. Expressing a lot of empathy and sensitivity towards such patients is highly important, as it may facilitate their recovery.


Cleveland Clinic. (2020). Dissociative Amnesia: Symptoms, Causes, Management & Treatment. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9789-dissociative-amnesia

Staniloiu, A., & Markowitsch, H. J. (2014). Dissociative amnesia. The Lancet Psychiatry, 1(3), 226–241. doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(14)70279-2 

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