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Stress can trigger temporary amnesia, for real

Our memories of our teenage years are usually pretty clear because it was a pivotal time in our lives, so it makes sense that we would dream about them. But what if you woke up one morning certain you were 15, and it wasn’t a dream? That’s exactly what happened to this 32-year-old woman in 2008.

Naomi Jacobs, 32, woke up convinced she was her 15-year-old self, with no memory of what had happened over the past 17 years. She told the BBC that the first thing she remembered being off was the sound of her own voice, which was much lower than it had been when she was a teenager. Then she looked at her face in the mirror and could not believe her eyes.

She said her last memory was falling asleep in her bunk bed while studying for an exam. Imagine the shock of not only waking up more than a decade in the future but seeing strange, futuristic technology, a home you don’t recognize and an 11-year-old boy who keeps calling you Mommy. Sounds more like a nightmare, right?

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The diagnosis

The odd thing was that she still remembered little things from the missing 17 years, like how to drive a car and her bank PIN. Jacobs was suffering from a rare disorder usually brought on by stress called dissociative amnesia. It’s a form of memory loss in which only parts of one’s memory are blocked out while others remain intact (certain facts, motor memory). Also called psychogenic amnesia, it often involves the loss of one’s autobiographical memory (meaning the collection of chronological memories), which can span from a few hours up to several years. What happened to Jacobs fell on the more severe end of that spectrum.

The causes

Stress is thought to be a major contributing factor in the development of this disorder. Oftentimes the chunk of memory being blocked out by the individual has to do with a traumatic or particularly stressful event that occurred earlier in life. While it is unclear if Jacobs’ memory loss was due to a specific stressful memory her brain was trying to block out or just to excessive stress in her day-to-day life, stress was no doubt the underlying factor.

Dissociative amnesia differs from more traditional amnesia because it’s not usually associated with a brain disease or injury. Also, where memories are often lost forever with traditional amnesia, someone with dissociative amnesia still has theirs but can’t recall them because they’ve been buried within the mind. Those memories can resurface over time with the proper treatment.

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The predisposition

While not proven, there is likely a genetic link to the development of dissociative amnesia. People with memory loss disorders in general tend to have a familial relation with similar mental difficulties.

It is also more common in women than in men. Cases arise more frequently during wartime and after natural disasters, when overall stress levels are at their highest.

The symptoms

Suddenly having large gaps in one’s memories/not being able to recall specific moments is the big one. Side effects of that are confusion, depression and more anxiety, which likely don’t help matters much. Jacobs’ first instinct was to curl back up in bed and go to sleep to escape this new world she did not know.

The diagnosis and treatment

Doctors will run several diagnostic tests to rule out any physical illness or injury. Dissociative amnesia can look a lot like regular amnesia, so they first have to make sure it’s not that. Once the dissociative diagnosis is determined, patients are usually referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist, depending on the severity of the memory loss.

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Therapy variations

There are several forms of therapy that might help someone diagnosed with dissociative amnesia. The one that ends up working really depends on the individual and the scope of amnesia. Here are some of the most effective ones:

Psychotherapy: involves discussing emotional/psychological problems to free up communication and uncover unknown issues.

Cognitive therapy: helps change dysfunctional (aka stress-driven) thinking patterns that result in negative feelings and behaviors.

Family therapy: extremely helpful with memory loss, because family members might be able to trigger forgotten things a patient has trouble doing on their own.

Clinical hypnosis: a form of therapy that involves putting patients in a trance to help them uncover repressed memories. (Caveat: This can sometimes create false memories and is therefore somewhat controversial.)

Alternative therapy methods: meditation, yoga and creative therapy (aka relaxation through the creation of art and/or music).

If treatment is administered regularly and soon after the episode of memory loss, full recovery is likely. However, there have been occasions of patients never regaining their lost memories.

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