Dissociative Disorders are conditions that involve breakdowns of memory, awareness, identity or perception. Dissociative Disorders can be triggered by stress, substance abuse, psychological trauma or may have no identifiable trigger at all. Some of these disorders can run in families, and most are diagnosed in adulthood but typically stem from childhood trauma. These disorders are relatively common; occurring in approximately 10% of the general population and over 45% of psychiatric patients.
The term Dissociative Disorders is a blanket term that covers several different disorders. The disease sub-types are listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition ) and are as follows:
Dissociative identity disorder: Formally called multiple personality disorder, this ailment is characterized by the alternation of two or more personality states. Typically, the sufferer has trouble recalling the details of their alternative personalities and in extreme cases has no idea that alternative personalities exist.
Dissociative amnesia: The temporary loss of memory, specifically related to a traumatic or stressful event. Dissociative amnesia is the most common of the Dissociative Disorders and can occur gradually or all at once and can last as little as a few minutes to as long as years. The frequency and severity of dissociative amnesia varies based on the patient and the type of trauma experienced.
Dissociative fugue: Trigged by stressful life events, this disorder is rare and characterized by having amnesia about your personal identity. Sufferers can forget their memories, personalities, and other traits unique to them. It can also include abrupt travel or the establishment of a new identity.
Depersonalization Disorder: This disorder is categorized by periods of detachment from one’s surroundings. Events may feel like they’re unreal or feelings instead of reality.
To the sufferer, Dissociative Disorders are unpredictable, exhausting, and hard to control. To the observer, Dissociative Disorders are hard to watch play out as the symptoms of amnesia, multiple personalities, or detachment are emotionally loaded and difficult to understand.
Treatment for these disorders varies depending on the type and severity as well as the way in which it was triggered. Typically, long-term psychotherapy helps to ease feelings of trauma and merge multiple personalities into one. Alternative therapies such as hypnosis may be employed to help people remember past events during instances of amnesia. All of these disorders can benefit from the use of medication such as anti-anxiety, antidepressants, and tranquilizers, but medication only helps to control the symptoms of these disorders so they should only be used in combination with other therapies.
If you or someone you know is suffering from Dissociative Disorders, it may feel like there’s no hope, but that’s not the case. Freeing yourself from years of trauma is definitely a difficult task but can be done. These disorders are very well researched and well understood, so treatment and a full recovery is possible. The first step to a lasting recovery is speaking with a trained therapist so they can start you on a path to healing.
Dr. Takos is a Newport Beach Psychologist specializing in the treatment of adolescents and adults suffering from depression, anxiety, and trauma-and stressor-related disorders.