There are two basic symptoms of psychogenic amnesia, which are forgetting all or part of past experiences, and suffering emotional distress or impairment in psychosocial or occupational functioning due to this condition. Furthermore, there are well-defined patterns in the way people may forget, described as localized, selective, continuous or systematic. Generally, though, this condition — formally named dissociative amnesia — is more often diagnosed by eliminating other possible disorders that may account for its symptoms.
The most important piece of the psychogenic amnesia symptoms is that a person has lost some part of past memories. There may be segments of a childhood that can’t be recalled or memory loss surrounding a particular stressful event. The person experiencing this is conscious that there is something missing. He or she doesn’t, as this point, fabricate some other memory to smooth things out or provide continuity.
Much attention is given to exactly how and what memories are forgotten. Psychogenic amnesia symptoms could be localized, where none of the details about a specific event are recalled. Some people instead experience selective memory. They may be able to remember some details about an event, but not others. For example, in a plane crash a man with psychogenic amnesia might remember family members were there, but not talking to them, the details of the crash, or the way he escaped.
Alternately, sometimes patients with psychogenic amnesia symptoms are more profoundly affected and they may not have any memory of any events from a specific point up to the present. This is called continuous amnesia, and it is challenging because memory loss may continue to be accrued in the present. Another possibility is an unusual form of memory loss called systematized amnesia. The details forgotten are usually related by group, such as all members of a family, the location of anything in a particular city, or some other meaningful collection of details that bear some relationship to each other, and may have an association with trauma.
In addition to experiencing memory loss of this type, psychogenic amnesia symptoms must, by definition, result in certain kinds of stress or cause problems in daily living. Failing to remember an event isn’t always traumatic. In true dissociative amnesia, the memory gaps are usually profound. Since they are so big, people with this condition are distressed by their loss or unable to work and function as they normally would.
The short list of psychogenic amnesia symptoms often means diagnosis involves a process of eliminating other disorders. Conditions that rule out dissociative amnesia include dissociative fugue and dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personality disorder. Sometimes, the presence of posttraumatic stress or acute stress disorder better accounts for memory loss. Head injury, somatization disorder or malingering amnesia — where the individual is pretending to have memory loss — are other potential alternate explanations.