Life Events & Trauma

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Dissociative Disorders

According to the American Psychiatric Association, dissociative disorders involve a disconnection, or problems with, memory, identity, emotion, behavior, and sense of self. These symptoms, which are often caused by psychological trauma, can disrupt functioning and interfere with daily life.

Dissociative Disorders

How Common Are Dissociative Disorders?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), up to 75% of the general population experience one episode of dissociation in their lives. However, only 2% meet the diagnostic criteria for chronic episodes. Women are more likely than men to develop dissociative disorders.

In a 12-month study conducted in the United States, researchers found that:

  • 1.5% of people experienced dissociative identity disorder,
  • 1.8% of people experienced dissociative amnesia,
  • 0.8% of people experienced depersonalization/derealization disorder, and
  • 4.4% of people experienced dissociative symptoms.

According to the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, clinicians and mental health providers often misdiagnose dissociative disorders. Misdiagnoses can lead to delayed or ineffective treatment, and individuals with undiagnosed dissociative disorders often experience a poorer quality of life and higher rates of self-harm.

Types of Dissociative Disorders

Under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the three main types of dissociative disorders are:

Dissociative Identity Disorder

Dissociative identity disorder, previously referred to as multiple personality disorder, is associated with traumatic experiences, such as natural disasters or abuse during childhood or adolescence.

Dissociative identity disorder involves the presence of one or more distinct identities or personality states. Each distinct identity corresponds with changes in behavior, memory, and thinking. The signs and symptoms of dissociative identity disorder can be observed and reported by friends and family members or the individual.

Memory loss or gaps in memory regarding daily life, personal information, or past traumatic events can accompany changes in personality state. Dissociative identity disorder symptoms can cause significant distress, and severe forms of dissociation create difficulty in everyday life and confusion about personal identity.

Dissociative Amnesia

Dissociative amnesia affects memory more severely than day-to-day forgetfulness. Individuals with dissociative amnesia may experience memory loss lasting from minutes to years. Like Dissociative Identity Disorder, dissociative amnesia is often connected to traumatic experiences.

During periods of memory loss, individuals may be unable to remember personal information or recall specific periods. In rare cases, individuals with dissociative amnesia may enter a dissociative fugue state, characterized by sudden, unexpected travel, with the inability to recall some or all of one’s past. 

Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder

Derealization disorder is associated with feelings of unreality, such as detachment from one’s body and surroundings. For example, an individual with derealization disorder may feel like they are watching what’s happening from outside of their body, or feel that their surroundings are unreal. Individuals with derealization disorder are often aware of their feelings and find them distressing.

Mental health conditions like acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder can involve symptoms of derealization or depersonalization.

Symptoms of Dissociative Disorders

The symptoms of dissociative disorders vary according to the specific disorder. Common symptoms include:

  • Feelings of detachment from yourself or the world around you
  • Lack of personal identity
  • Memory loss or a sense of amnesia
  • Other mental health problems, such as anxiety disorder, depression, substance use disorders, and sleep disorders

For some individuals, dissociative symptoms are short-term following a trauma. For others, symptoms are long-term and cause disruptions to everyday life.

Treatment Options for Dissociative Disorders

If dissociation interferes with your ability to function, it can be helpful to seek treatment. Multiple resources can be useful for individuals experiencing dissociative symptoms, including:

  • Therapy: Working with a therapist specializing in trauma treatment can be especially beneficial for individuals struggling with dissociation. Therapy for dissociative disorders typically focuses on developing coping mechanisms and strategies to control dissociation. Therapy can also help individuals address the underlying cause of their dissociative symptoms.
  • Check-ups: Scheduling regular check-ups with your health care provider can rule out possible underlying medical conditions related to dissociative symptoms and help you stay mindful of your physical health.
  • Social support: Opening up to friends and family members about your personal history and dissociative symptoms might seem intimidating, but it can help you start the healing process. Letting friends and family members know what you’re experiencing allows them to provide support and understanding.

How to Find Help For Dissociative Disorders

With appropriate mental health treatment, many individuals with dissociative disorders can successfully manage their symptoms and improve their ability to function and develop satisfying lives.

Treatment for dissociative disorders often starts with psychotherapy, such as psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, or dialectical behavioral therapy. Therapy can help individuals struggling with dissociation gain control by integrating different elements of their identity.

For individuals with dissociative disorders, therapy can be challenging and intense, as it involves remembering and processing past trauma. Consequently, it’s important to find a therapist that you trust and feel comfortable opening up to.

To find a mental health provider, consider reaching out to a therapist through WithTherapy. WithTherapy’s unique matchmaking service will help you find the right therapist, by considering your personal preferences and requirements. One of the mental health experts on the WithTherapy platform will help you develop coping mechanisms to help you take control of your mental health.

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