Overview of Dissociative Disorders


What is Dissociative Disorders                       

Dissociative disorders are mental disorders that involve the patient experiencing a disconnection between their perception and their reality. People with dissociative disorders experience a lack of continuity between their memories, thoughts, surroundings, actions, and even their identity. Dissociative disorders are a more severe type of mental illness that can potentially disrupt every mental functioning area. People experiencing these disorders escape reality in ways that are uncontrollable, involuntary, and unhealthy. Although dissociate disorders share some commonalities with posttraumatic stress disorder, they each have separate diagnostic criteria, and each requires different treatments.

Symptoms of Dissociative Disorders               

Signs and symptoms depend on the type of dissociative disorder a person experiences. According to the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, they include memory loss, a sense of being detached from self and emotions, a perception that people and things around you are distorted and unreal, and a blurred sense of identity.   

Dissociative Amnesia             

The main symptom of dissociative amnesia is memory loss experienced as more severe than normal forgetfulness and can’t be explained by a medical condition. People with dissociative amnesia can’t recall information about themselves or evens, especially traumatic events. This type of amnesia can be specific to particular events or a certain time, such as the time soldiers spend in combat. An episode of dissociative amnesia usually occurs suddenly and can last from minutes to years. Sometimes when a dissociative fugue stage develops, the patient loses all touch with reality.

Depersonalization disorder.                


Depersonalization-derealization disorder occurs when a client persistently feels that they are being observed from outside their body or feel that the things around them are not real. It is somewhat common for people to have a passing experience of depersonalization or derealization at some point. However, when these feelings occur continuously and begin to interfere with the ability to function, it’s considered a depersonalization-derealization disorder, a disorder more common in people who’ve had traumatic experiences.

Dissociative identity disorder.            

Dissociative identity disorder is a mental health illness that was previously known as multiple personality disorder. This type of personality disorder is associated with overwhelming experiences, traumatic events, and abuse. Symptoms of dissociative identity disorder include:

  • The existence of personality disorders (or distinct personality states that are accompanied by changes in behavior, thinking, or memory
  • Gaps in memory about personal information, traumatic events, or everyday events

Also, disturbances related to the disorder must not be a regular part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice.

Types of Dissociative Disorders          

There are three primary types of dissociative disorders: dissociative identity disorder, depersonalization/derealization disorder, and dissociative amnesia.

Depersonalization / Derealization Disorder                

Depersonalization disorder, also called derealization disorder, is when you feel detached from your thoughts and disconnected from your environment. However, the patient does not actually lose touch with reality. Instead, they realize their perceptions are not real. Sometimes, depersonalization disorder is the result of brain diseases, seizure disorders, and psychiatric disorders such as dementia and schizophrenia.

Dissociative Amnesia  

Dissociative amnesia is a type of mental health illness that involves loss of memory about important events or personal information. While the forgotten information may be inaccessible to consciousness, it sometimes continues to influence behavior. An example of this is a woman who was raped in an elevator, refusing to get on an elevator even though she does not remember being raped.

Treatment for this disorder includes psychotherapy, which is sometimes combined with hypnosis or medication-based interventions.

Dissociative amnesia is probably under detected and averages around 1.8%. The amnesia seems to be caused by traumatic or stressful experiences endured or witnessed, such as physical or sexual abuse, combat, natural disasters, etc.

Causes of Dissociative Disorders        


Dissociative disorders are usually developed as a way to deal with trauma and most often form in children being exposed to long-term abuse such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. For the individual experiencing the disorder, it helps to keep difficult memories at bay. Times of increased stress can temporarily worsen symptoms making them more evident or apparent. Most people with dissociative identity disorder have experienced trauma of some kind.

Risk Factors and Suicide Risk

Those who were abused in childhood have an increased chance of developing dissociative identity disorder. Most of the people who develop this disorder have experienced repetitive and overwhelming trauma during childhood. Unfortunately, suicide attempts and other self-injurious behaviors are commonly seen among people with a dissociative identity disorder. In one outpatient population study, 70 percent of outpatients with dissociative identity disorder attempted suicide.

How to prevent dissociative disorders                        

While researchers and scientists have not fully uncovered causes and preventions consistent across all patient categories, having a healthy social support system is known to have a mitigating effect on the disorder’s progression. If you have a child who has experienced trauma, you must seek treatment quickly.


Psychotherapy and behavioral interventions are the primary forms of treatment for dissociative disorders. During psychotherapy and other talk therapy sessions, the patient talks about their disorder and related issues with a mental health care professional. A therapist can help you better understand your condition and form new ways of coping with stressful circumstances. Therapeutic work involving direct talk about the traumatic event is generally avoided until a relationship develops between therapist and client. Support groups might also be recommended.

There are no FDA approved medications to treat dissociative disorders. However, a doctor may prescribe antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or antipsychotic drugs. These medicines are used to help control dissociative disorders’ effects on mental health symptoms.

In closing

New research funded in part by the American Psychiatric Association sheds new light on dissociation and dissociative disorders that influence future treatments. Over the long term, as more research is done, treatments will become more effective for depersonalization derealization disorders.

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