dissociative disorders

What are dissociative disorders?

March 12, 2024

The article is developed in partnership with BetterHelp

Dissociative disorders are a complex set of mental health conditions that can affect various aspects of a person's life. From memory to identity, emotion to perception, these disorders can disrupt normal functioning and pose significant challenges to those who experience them.

dissociative disorders

It might help to think of dissociative disorders as a puzzle of the mind, where pieces of reality seem to slip away, leaving people feeling disconnected from themselves and from the world around them.

These mental health conditions, while often misunderstood, can significantly impact patients’ everyday lives. Let's break down what dissociative disorders entail, along with their types, symptoms, risk factors and treatment options.

What are Dissociative Disorders?
Dissociative disorders include a group of mental health conditions characterized by disconnection among thoughts, memories, feelings, surroundings, behavior and identity.

Imagine feeling like you're watching your life unfold from a distance – like you're just a spectator instead of an active participant. This sense of detachment can be distressing and interfere with various aspects of everything from personal relationships to work.

We've probably all had the normal experience of daydreaming, zoning out while driving, or getting lost in a captivating book. But – in cases of dissociative disorders, this disconnection becomes more severe and pervasive. It can stem from traumatic experiences, such as accidents or abuse, where dissociation serves as a coping mechanism to endure overwhelming situations.

Types of Dissociative Disorders
There are several different types of dissociative disorders, each with its own set of symptoms and challenges, as outlined below:

Depersonalization/derealization disorder: This involves feeling disconnected from yourself or the world around you. It's been described as watching one's life through a foggy lens, where everything seems surreal and distant. People experiencing this disorder may feel as if they're outside their bodies or that the world around them isn't real. Learn more from online therapy service BetterHelp.

Dissociative amnesia: This condition is characterized by severe memory loss that can't be explained by a medical condition. People may forget significant events or even entire periods of their lives, especially when the disorder is associated with trauma. Amnesia can be localized (missing specific events), selective (forgetting specific aspects of an event), or generalized (complete loss of identity).

Dissociative identity disorder: Formerly known as multiple personality disorder, DID involves the presence of two or more distinct identities within one person. These identities may have their own names, histories and mannerisms, leading to periods of amnesia and confusion. These shifts in identity are involuntary and often distressing.

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Symptoms and Signs
Symptoms of dissociative disorders can vary widely, but may include any or all of the following:

  • Feeling detached from oneself or emotions
  • Distorted perception of reality
  • Blurred sense of identity
  • Severe stress or difficulty coping with daily life
  • Memory loss, especially surrounding traumatic events
  • Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts

Causes and Risk Factors
Dissociative disorders often develop as a coping mechanism in response to traumatic or distressing events. For example, children who experience abuse or live in unpredictable environments are particularly at risk. In addition, events like war, natural disasters or medical procedures sometimes can trigger dissociative symptoms.

Dissociative disorders can affect people of any age, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic background. However, women and individuals assigned female at birth are more likely to receive a diagnosis. Those who have experienced physical or sexual abuse in childhood are at higher risk, particularly for DID.

Although dissociative disorders are relatively rare, affecting approximately 2 percent of the U.S. population, they can significantly impact those who experience them. They often arise after traumatic events and can co-occur with other mental health conditions like PTSD, BPD, depression and anxiety disorders.

Diagnosis and Tests
Healthcare providers diagnose dissociative disorders by evaluating symptoms and personal history. They also may conduct tests to rule out medical conditions with similar symptoms. Mental health professionals rely on criteria outlined in diagnostic manuals to make an accurate diagnosis.

Treatment and Coping Strategies
While treating dissociative disorders can be challenging, it is possible to manage symptoms and improve overall quality of life. Treatment options include the following:

Psychotherapy: Talk therapy can help individuals explore their experiences, process trauma and develop coping strategies. In fact, therapy plays a crucial role in helping patients manage their symptoms. Psychotherapy can help individuals integrate their identities and cope with past traumas. Cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy are commonly used approaches, alongside hypnosis in some cases. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy also can be beneficial in treating dissociative disorders.

Self-care: Engaging in activities that promote relaxation and mindfulness, such as meditation or yoga, can be beneficial.

Support networks: Building a strong support system of friends, family and mental health professionals can provide tremendous assistance on the road to recovery.

Seeking Help
If you or someone within your acquaintance is exhibiting signs of a dissociative disorder, seeking assistance from a qualified healthcare professional is crucial. In emergencies, such as severe or impulsive behavior, immediate medical attention may be necessary.

Dissociative disorders may be complex and challenging, but with the right support and treatment, it's possible to regain a sense of connection and control. In fact, with professional treatment, many people learn to manage their symptoms and improve their daily functioning.

Dissociative disorders are multifaceted mental health conditions that require understanding, empathy and comprehensive treatment approaches By raising awareness and fostering understanding, we can create a more compassionate and supportive environment for those experiencing these conditions. If you're struggling, know that help is available, and recovery is possible.


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