When people with dissociative amnesia develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol, they may risk developing complications.

The mental illness known as dissociative amnesia can include a number of complications in daily life, like short-term memory loss, loss of memories associated with a specific event or time, or complete loss of personal information.

Although this specific type of amnesia is not the result of substance abuse, substance abuse can cause memory loss. Drugs can make significant changes in the brain. Substance abuse can lead to memory loss, referred to as drug-induced amnesia. This amnesia is temporary and returns when drug use has stopped. However, with an addiction, stopping the use of substances can be challenging and memory loss issues may continue.

Drug Abuse as a Hindrance to Dissociative Amnesia Treatment

When people with dissociative amnesia develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol, they may risk developing complications. Drug abuse can cause ongoing social and financial problems in addition to the original trauma issues that led to the onset of dissociative amnesia, making treatment difficult.

Effective treatment should focus on both the amnesia as well as the substance use disorder. In most cases with these two co-occurring conditions, a patient should go through detox before therapy begins. Therapy may not be as effective if patients continue to abuse alcohol or drugs because of the likelihood of future drug-induced memory loss.

Effects of Substance Abuse on Dissociative Amnesia Symptoms

People with dissociative amnesia already suffer from confusion and forgetfulness; adding a brain-altering substance can increase the unwanted symptoms that they experience. Alcohol or drug abuse can not only increase the symptoms that are already present, but they can also create additional undesired feelings and circumstances, like headaches, nausea, hangovers, withdrawal, blackouts and poor decision-making.

Dissociative Amnesia and Alcohol

Alcohol is one of the most common substances that cause amnesia, often referred to as blackouts. Someone may maintain normal functioning during this blackout, though they may not make long-term memories from the situation.

According to the CDC, it only takes one or two drinks to show evidence of memory deterioration. For people already dealing with dissociative amnesia, consuming alcohol could increase their memory loss for the time being.

Patients may look to alcohol as a support system to help them relax or deal with the underlying issues of amnesia. People with dissociative amnesia may have depression as well and alcohol use can contribute to worsened depression symptoms.

Dissociative Amnesia and Marijuana

Marijuana use can impair a person’s memory, sense of time and perception. Like alcohol, dissociative amnesia patients may use marijuana to calm their nerves and to escape their subconscious problems that caused the amnesia.

Long-term use has been shown to slow blood flow to the brain and reduce brain activity, which impacts memory recollection. Marijuana use may contribute to further memory loss and additional confusion, making treatment more difficult for the patient.

Dissociative Amnesia and Stimulants

If the frustration of dealing with memory loss becomes too much, patients may use stimulants to help them focus on the more important things going on in their life. According to the US National Library of Medicine, once a person is addicted to amphetamines, it is possible that they can permanently damage their body and brain. Memory loss and disturbed thought processes are permanent effects of amphetamines. The overuse of stimulants can rewire the brain, creating more challenges when trying to treat drug abuse and dissociative amnesia together.  

Statistics on Dissociative Amnesia and Drug Abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that since 2012, there have been more than 12 reported cases of people who use opioid drugs experiencing amnesia for up to a year. These drugs include narcotic painkillers and heroin. Drug-induced amnesia does not only occur when a patient has an addiction, but it can be a serious side-effect from drug or alcohol abuse.

According to the CDC, prescription drugs can cause drug-induced amnesia, even when patients use it as directed.

Prescription drugs are known to cause memory loss, whether when used as directed or when abused. The medications that to lead to dissociative amnesia include benzodiazepines, antidepressants, anti-seizure drugs, painkillers and sleep aids.

Drug Abuse as a Cause of Dissociative Amnesia

Trauma can cause amnesia, but drug use can also contribute to it. Drug-induced amnesia refers to memory loss caused by misusing a substance. It is not difficult to determine when someone has amnesia but realizing when drugs or alcohol cause the memory loss may be more of a challenge.

Drug-induced amnesia is not a common co-occurrence, though when someone uses drugs, the drugs have the potential to cause memory loss. Examples of anti-anxiety drugs that may produce amnesia include opioids and alcohol. These drugs link to higher chances of substance abuse. Treatment for addiction usually resolves the patient’s amnesia when it is drug-induced, but it must be ongoing to prevent recurrence of use.

Some people with amnesia may try to hide their memory loss by making up stories of the forgotten period. Amnesia may be drug-induced if the memory loss occurs soon after using the drug or the individual regularly uses drugs. Drug-induced amnesia is not necessarily a sign that an individual has a substance use disorder. However, the more often an individual abuses drugs, the greater their risk of experiencing episodes of memory loss.

If you or someone you love is struggling with a substance use or co-occurring disorder like dissociative amnesia, The Recovery Village can help. A team of professionals offers a number of treatment programs for substance use and co-occurring disorders. Call and speak with a representative to learn more about which program could suit your needs.

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Editor – Jennifer Kopf
Jennifer Kopf is a Florida-based writer who likes to balance creative writing with helpful and informative pieces. Her passion for helping people has translated into writing about the importance of treatment for substance use and mental health disorders. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Krisi Herron, LCDC
Krisi Herron is an Adjunct Psychology Professor, a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor and a freelance writer who contributes to several mental health blogs. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.