Dissociative Amnesia: The Oblivion Caused by Trauma

· July 5, 2017

Dissociative amnesia is characterized by the forgetting of an event with a high negative charge. In psychology, it is called psychogenic amnesia, dissociative amnesia or functional amnesia. This oblivion is not caused by any identifiable physical pathology. Furthermore, the recovery of the forgotten information can be produced naturally or through the use of psychotherapy.

There are traumatic experiences which can mark us for life. These experiences can change several aspects of our life and our relationships, too. Intense suffering produces a strong impact and, with the objective of protecting ourselves, our mind sets makes the traumatic event or certain characteristics associated with it unrecoverable to our memory.

There are specific populations or concrete situations in which dissociative amnesia is common.  Soldiers who have witnessed war, people who have suffered from sexual abuse during their infancy, and victims of domestic violence, natural disasters or terrorist acts, are some examples.

Dissociative escape: the loss of identity due to stress

It is not only about forgetting a concrete episode. There is also the loss of one’s identity. People exposed to an event with these characteristics can get lost outside where they live, abandoning their towns and families. This situation can last from a few hours to even years. In cases where the dissociative escape lasts for a long time, the person can even end up creating a new identity, with a new family and a new job.

couple with blank faces


In some cases, it can happen as an undercover desire to “escape” an adverse situation. Keep in mind, this is not a disease, but rather the forgetting of one’s own identity in response to a highly stressful situation. During the episode of dissociative escape, the subject can appear normal and show normal behavior.

When the episode is over, the person finds himself in an unknown place without any idea of how he got there. Normally he does not remember what happened during the episode, though he starts remembering everything which occurred before the episode. Sometimes the recovery of the previous identity occurs gradually, even though there are some details which might never be recovered.

Dissociative amnesia specific to the situation

Dissociate amnesia affects concrete episodes which are experienced as traumatic and which might have severely affected the person. Though the individual may not remember the episode, it stills affects their behavior. For example a woman who suffered sexual abuse in an elevator doesn’t remember the episode itself. Yet, she still avoids using elevators and the idea of using one makes her feel sick.

The memories of the event are usually recovered, though it is difficult to determine how much of the recovered information is real or how much of it is mixed with false information. The memory loss caused by trauma can show up in different forms.

  • Localized amnesia: a concrete episode is forgotten, usually the traumatic event.
  • Continuous amnesia: nothing from the traumatic event until the present moment can be remembered.
  • Generalized amnesia: the person can’t remember any data in reference to his identity, neither who he is nor where he lives. This type of amnesia occurs in very extreme cases and is not very common.
  • Selective amnesia:  only a few aspects of the experience can be remembered.
  • Systematized amnesia: the memory loss of certain information. Anything related to their mother, for example.

Treatment and recovery of the memories

therapist session

Dissociative amnesia does not have to show up immediately after the occurrence of the stressful event, it can present itself hours or even days after. In some occasions there might be flashbacks of the event, as happens in post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, in this particular case, the person does not know that the content is real.

In most cases there are behavioral problems, fatigue, sleeping problems, depression and substance abuse. The risk of suicide increases when the memory is recovered, and the individual suddenly remembers what happened. With the use of therapy, the person receives help in order to manage the traumatic experience through family support. Therapy also helps the individual develop coping strategies.

Clinical hypnosis techniques are also used. Through relaxation and concentration techniques, the individual manages to reach an altered state of consciousness, allowing that person to explore the thoughts, emotions and memories that their conscious mind has being blocking. This kind of strategy is not free of risks, and it’s possible to “recover” false memories or remember highly traumatic experiences.