Dissociative disorders are a range of conditions that can cause physical and psychological problems. Some are very short-lived and can last for a couple of weeks or months following a traumatic or stressful event. However, others can last much longer.
There are three main types of dissociative disorders:
- Dissociative disorders of movement or sensation
- Dissociative amnesia
- Dissociative identity disorder
Dissociative Disorders of Movement or Sensation:
Symptoms for this type of dissociative disorder include convulsions (seizures), loss of sensation and/or paralysis. This appears to be the result of a communication problem in the brain, rather than a physical cause. The symptoms can often be confused with neurological disorders such as epilepsy or a stroke.
An individual with dissociative amnesia will go through periods where they are unable to remember information about themselves or events that have occurred in the past. It is also possible for them to forget about a learned talent or skill that they have. This is much more serious than usual forgetfulness and it is not a result of an underlying medical condition. Some people with dissociative amnesia may find themselves in strange places without knowing how they got there; they may have travelled there on purpose or they may have wandered there in a confused state.
Blank episodes such as this can last for a short period of time (minutes or hours) or they can last much longer (months or years).
Some of the symptoms for Dissociative Amnesia in the DSM-5 (diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders – fifth edition) are as follows (you must show symptoms from this manual for a certain period of time, before being formally diagnosed):
- You have had multiple episodes where you have been unable to remember important personal information. This is usually something traumatic that has occurred, or it can be your identity or background. This form of memory loss is much more extensive than normal, every-day forgetfulness.
- Memory loss is not related to another mental health disorder such as PTSD, or substance abuse such as alcohol or drugs. Symptoms are also not related to neurological disorders or head injury.
- Symptoms have a negative impact on your day-to-day life such as your relationships and/or your ability to work.
Dissociative Identity Disorder:
Dissociative identity disorder, also referred to as multiple personality disorder is an unusual disorder. Someone who is diagnosed with this disorder may feel uncertain in regards to their identity. They may feel the presence of other identities in their head, each with their own voices, backgrounds and mannerisms. They are likely to feel as though they are a stranger to themselves.
Symptoms of Dissociative Identity Disorder within the DSM-5 that you may show, include the following:
- You display, or others observe, two or more distinct identities or personalities, which may be described in some cultures as a possession that is unwanted and involuntary. Each identity has its own pattern of perceiving, relating to and thinking about yourself and the world.
- Experiencing gaps in your memory from day-to-day events, important personal information and traumatic events which are too extensive to be put down to forgetfulness.
- Your symptoms are not a part of cultural or religious practice.
- Symptoms are not due to other medical conditions or the use of alcohol or drugs. For children, symptoms are not a result of imaginary friends or play.
Other Types of Dissociative Disorders:
There are more than these three types of dissociative disorders. These include derealisation and depersonalisation disorder, other specified dissociation disorder (OSDD) and unspecified dissociation disorder (UDD)
You can read more about these disorders on the Mind Charity website here.
It is important to remember that everyone’s experience of dissociative disorders will be different.
Dissociation is one of the ways in which the mind tries to cope with stress and/or trauma. If a person dissociates for a long period of time, they are more likely to develop a dissociative disorder, with dissociation becoming increasingly common when under pressure.
What Causes Dissociative Disorders?
People are more likely to develop a dissociative disorder if they have experienced trauma as a child. This could include physical, emotional or sexual abuse, traumatic loss of a loved one or severe neglect. It is the way in which we react to the trauma that determines whether or not we develop a dissociative disorder or other mental health condition.
Again, Mind Charity has some very interesting information in regards to how trauma can lead to dissociation. You can read about that here.
In order to be diagnosed with a dissociative disorder, your doctor will need to examine you and ask you a series of questions in regards to your symptoms and personal life. They may conduct various tests in order to determine whether your symptoms could be down to an underlying physical illness such as head injuries, brain diseases, sleep deprivation or intoxication. You may then be given a psychiatric examination in which a mental health professional asks you questions about your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. They will then discuss your symptoms with you and with your permission may ask family or friends for further information from a different perspective as this can sometimes be very helpful in moving forward.
There is no medication specifically for dissociation. However, individuals may be prescribed anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication or anti-psychotic medication to help with other symptoms.
A common source of treatment for dissociative disorders is psychotherapy. This is also known as talking therapy or counselling. This involves talking about your past, your symptoms and helping you to recognise and triggers prior to having an episode. It is important to look for a therapist who had advanced training and/or experience in working with people who have dissociative disorders.