Dissociative Amnesia in PTSD and CPTSD as Survival

Dissociative Amnesia in PTSD and CPTSD as Survival

Dissociative amnesia or dissociative fugue:

You dissociate in order to survive. Dissociation isn’t a static state you move into when you come out of a fight and flight activated state; rather, it is a gradual process in which, with each step, you dissociate further into a state of disconnection.

Each time you further disconnect from yourself through dissociation, you leave behind a part of your awareness. As a consequence, a sense of forgetfulness or amnesia sets in. This PTSD dissociative amnesia can manifest in your not being able to feel certain emotions clearly anymore, or not remembering what happened to you.

The Ins and Outs of PTSD Dissociative Amnesia

It isn’t that your memory is lost to you; it is more that your focus has shifted to something that you feel you are more capable of dealing with.

For example, addiction is part and parcel of trauma and is a way of dissociating to help you “forget” yourself for a moment. It helps you cope with the underlying emotional stress of feeling activated.

Over time, addiction can become a problem in itself and your focus will be geared to overcoming your addiction.

It is this focus on the more superficial– and making that into a problem– that you think you need to overcome. This is the essence of dissociative amnesia. Moreover, it works in more than one way. It helps you to cope, and simultaneously it prevents you from healing, as you have fragmented and removed your awareness from the underlying emotional charge.

From Addictive Behavior into Numbness and Depression

Dissociative amnesia can be mild or can morph into something more severe. The longer the emotional residue of trauma or PTSD stays alive, the greater the chance that you will further dissociate into a collapsed state. That state will be marked by a shut-down, depression, and numbness.

Again, that state in itself isn’t static. You will move in and out of a shut-down state. Similarly, you will move in and out of the ability to remember what happened to you, and when that gets to be too much, you might divert that energy back into dissociating and stimulating dissociative amnesia.

» Dive deeper into this topic by reading The Trauma Essential Series →

How is forgetfulness or dissociative amnesia for you?

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  • Laura says:

    Hi Roland, can the dissociative amnesia be reversed? Or is this something to be accepted and managed?

  • Melissa says:

    Exactly. My mom used to bring up old situations, and I failed, over and over, to remember.

  • Laura says:

    Interesting post. I’ve only really just become aware that this is what I do. I feel very much in a collapsed state right now and struggling to see how to move forward when I don’t really remember what caused it. Nothing really seems significant enough though memories are so vague. I had been thinking of dissociation as more to do with losing awareness of facts and events but (rather obviously now!) I’m thinking about the feelings that I’ve also lost. My counsellor asked me yesterday if I’d loved my mum before she died and I honestly had no idea – I hate that. Thanks to articles like this I do have hope that there’s a way through though which is something 🙂

    • Roland says:

      Hi Laura, When I start working with people individually, memories and associations do tend to come back. I think it is important to address what is first as that takes you deeper once you start to reverse the dissociation.

  • Lisa says:

    Hello Roland. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for that. I am only 47yr old and suffer from PTSD. There is so much of my past that I can’t remember. Things that happened just a few years ago I can’t remember and forget about my high school or childhood years. Do you think this is what is going on with me?

    • Roland says:

      It does sound like it. There is only a certain amount of energy we have each day. To not remember helps you not to feel the emotions related to the memories, which in turn helps you to manage and cope.

  • Sierra says:

    What is it called if you remember several very traumatic events but have no emotions connected to it?

  • Jake says:

    Thanks for this article! Is it beneficial to remember exactly what happened? Is there a risk of getting retraumatised if memories return?

    • Roland says:

      It can be beneficial if you can hold enough containment for what comes up for you. If that isn’t the case, it can be retraumatizing. It can work both ways.

  • Simon says:

    Roland. My partner dissociates and for me it’s scary. She changes and I cannot get through to her no matter what I do. She’s been through abuse her whole childhood. Then she went through three very violent adult relationships. She’s been through abuse for 42 years. Is there any cure for dissociation. Regards simon.

  • Cristy says:

    I feel like this is how I have been coping for the past few years. I lost my 14yo daughter leukemia. I used to feel like I was watching myself grieve, like a science experiment. What would I do next, but for the past 3 years, I almost forget who I am by never looking at myself and sleeping a lot. Sometimes I remember and it is so painful I can’t breathe.

  • Sherry says:

    Good article Roland, as usual. When I trigger, I can’t recall how I got there either. I can usually track it back to the moment of confrontation. But as soon as I feel the finger of blame get pointed in my direction, I freeze and become 3 y/o again, unable to defend myself. I usually emerge startled, covered in sweat, tears and hyperventilating. Rarely can I tell you what the disagreement was about. Total amnesia. Over the years I’ve tried to cope by keeping an advocate handy for such moments. Not exactly what I call living freely….

    • Roland says:

      Have you tried to work on this with a trauma-informed counselor? You can reenact those situations in a therapeutic setting and slow things down to examine all your responses. Bit by bit, when done carefully, you can rewire some of those responses.

  • Joanie says:

    Hi Roland, I’ve been working on this for years with still full years of not a single memory. Is there a treatment plan that seems to work best? I’ve used Internal Family Systems in the past but my new therapist is using CBT which I find difficult due to my inability to collate time and effect. I read and listen to everything I can get my hands on, but I feel as empty as a rusty barrel most of the time. Thank you for being so helpful!

    • Roland says:

      It is a tricky thing. When I work with people individually and take them deeper, they start to associate and remember things that they previously didn’t. When they are back in their routine, it is hard for them to access the same memories that surfaced in our sessions. My idea is that memory lives in different energy frequencies and that you need sufficient energy to access them If you are compromised on a daily basis, access might be hindered. Sessions with the right practitioner might help to gradually open up some of the locked down memories.