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What Is Psychogenic Amnesia?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2018
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Psychogenic amnesia is a form of memory loss mediated by stressful or traumatic life events. The patient blocks memories that cause distress, and over time, they become inaccessible. The memory loss cannot be attributed to ordinary forgetfulness, and there is no neurological explanation. This condition is more properly known as disassociative amnesia, but some outdated texts and other references may refer to it as psychogenic amnesia. The linguistic roots of the older clinical term are a reference to the fact that the memory loss is psychological in origin.

Some patients have preexisting mental illness that can increase the chances of developing this condition. Others experience severe stress or trauma, or have a genetic legacy that plays a role in the development of psychogenic amnesia. The brain may respond to a traumatic or stressful situation by masking the memories. Initially the patient may still be able to access the memories and may experience a recurrence of the trauma while recollecting the experience. Eventually, the memories disappear entirely, and the patient may have large gaps and memory holes that can span hours, days, weeks, or even years.

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When a patient presents with memory loss, the doctor can perform a careful evaluation. She will determine what kinds of memories appear to be missing and may perform a physical examination and request medical imaging studies. Obvious causes like brain damage, aging, or normal forgetfulness with time must be ruled out during this examination. For example, if an older adult complains of not remembering her childhood very well, the doctor may consider aging and time as factors, especially if she had strong childhood memories before.

If obvious causes can be ruled out, the patient may have psychogenic amnesia. There are a number of treatment options available, most of which require sessions of psychotherapy with a trained practitioner. The health care provider can assist the patient with memory retrieval and the processing of stressful or traumatic information. She may also help patients rebuild memories and develop coping skills for handling traumatic memories when they surface.

Disruptions to the memory can be distressing. Patients may worry about the memories they block out or could grow concerned that they are forgetting other, important information that may be bound to the memories they block. Treatment for psychogenic amnesia can be an extended process, and the patient may need additional therapy to address the underlying trauma or stress. Some patients can also benefit from medication and alternative therapies like massage, hypnosis, and other stress relief techniques.

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