Dissociative amnesia can be defined as memory loss during a period of dissociation. That doesn’t really mean a lot to the average person though.
What is dissociative amnesia?
According to it’s definition it’s when a person reports memory gaps, inability to recall personal information or periods of time in their life. The period of time they can’t recall may vary from minutes to years. Many report it feels like losing time or not being able to recall what happened for an extended period of time with any kind of certainty. Some say it’s both knowing something happened but not having any clue what.
Theoretically, dissociative amnesia takes place during a state of dissociation. Which means that while dissociated, it’s possible to be unable to recall events, information. When that occurs it’s referred to as dissociative amnesia. It seems like this is downplayed as a symptom in most “disorders” and only discussed in extreme situations, like with people who have dissociative identity disorder. The dissociative amnesia in that case is more extreme than in other cases.
Dissociative amnesia is not exclusive to dissociative identity disorder
Dissociative amnesia is a symptom that is rarely discussed unless associated with dissociative identity disorder. According to the DSM, the severity of dissociative amnesia is a differentiating factor for DID. It’s commonly believed that the presence of dissociative amnesia is actually the difference between secondary structural dissociation and tertiary structural dissociation.
But we disagree. And we have to say, the more time we spend engaging in the mental health communities online – we find that dissociative amnesia is actually just a symptom of dissociation. And dissociation is a normal reaction our brain has to something that feels threatening.
Dissociative amnesia is a symptom of a dysregulated nervous system.
We have heard numerous people diagnosed with different “disorders” that also experience dissociative amnesia. After years of mental health research, we fully believe that dissociative amnesia is more common than we are led to believe.
Since our system believes that all dis-ease and dis-order of the brain can only happen as a result of it feeling threatened, we also believe that everyone could experience dissociative amnesia if they were feeling dissociated or triggered. We like to think it’s on a spectrum – like most everything.
Dissociative amnesia spectrum
When a brain dissociates, it’s in response to a perceived threat. This is the trigger (or reason) that the brain begins to dissociate. During that “triggered” state, people rarely recall with clarity what happened and how it happened. That’s a form of dissociative amnesia, one that would be at the “normal” end of the spectrum. We think how much amnesia is experienced can be directly correlated to how big the brain perceives the trigger or threat to be. The larger the threat the less likely a person is to remember what happened while their threat defense system was turned on.
And this is actually backed up by how the science of the brain works. During a triggered state, the parts of the brain that can register the here and now are less active than the parts reacting to something that happened in the past. This makes it easier to understand how what is going on in present day reality may not be registered or retained once the body and mind is out of the triggered state.
If the threat defense system is active and the nervous system is responding – it’s possible for dissociative amnesia to occur. It could be something on one end of the spectrum like getting lost in (read dissociating) preparing for a meeting while you make your way to the kitchen and “forgetting” what you went in there for.
Or it can be something on the other end of the spectrum like leaving your body when someone who looks like your abuser enters the coffee shop you’re in. For people with the most severe cases of dissociative amnesia – there is complete black out amnesia during some triggered periods. This occurs when a person has dissociative identity disorder and memory gaps happen as a result of switching identity states, but not every time a person with DID dissociates do they have dissociative amnesia – and that’s a common misconception.
Dissociative amnesia and mental illnesses
Like we mentioned – it’s not called dissociative amnesia when someone is diagnosed with ADHD, GAD or other disorders. It’s labeled as several different things – but it all comes down to dissociation when the threat defense system is triggered.
It’s referred to often in people with Obsessive Compulsive Rituals and many of them report “losing time” to their rituals. People who “go off” when they get angry, often report not having full awareness of what they were doing and they also have trouble remembering it. War Veterans often can’t remember what happened after they have been triggered by loud noises. People also talk about losing themselves in rumination, intrusive thoughts and perfectionism tendencies and many people with ADHD and Bipolar diagnosis also report dissociative amnesia when their symptoms are at their highest, only they call it something different. All of these are examples of dissociative amnesia.
Dissociative amnesia is a symptom and it can be debilitating when it’s severe. For the average person, it can be annoying but they can usually recover from the activation. For someone with severe dissociation and dissociative amnesia, it may control their lives and keep them from remembering how to take care of themselves or where they live.
It shouldn’t be taken lightly as a symptom. However, it does need to be acknowledged that it occurs quite often to help normalize it as a symptom of dissociation.