What is dissociation?
Dissociation is a term used to describe something that we all experience many times a day. It is the act of “zoning out,” as when we daydream or get lost in thought while driving. In its simplest form, dissociation is the way we all take mental vacations.
Dissociation as a coping tool
Dissociation is also a natural way that human beings and animals cope with fear. When we become scared or shocked, as happens during an accident or assault, our minds often use dissociation to detach and escape from overwhelming feelings.
While dissociation is a natural coping mechanism, if used too frequently it can become habitual and lead to a dissociative disorder. The dissociative disorders include:
How common are Dissociative Disorders?
While normal dissociation happens to everyone many times a day, problematic dissociation is rarer. About 10% of the general population suffers from a dissociative disorder at any given time. The most common dissociative disorder is dissociative amnesia. The least common is Dissociative Identity Disorder.
What are remedies for Dissociative Disorders?
Since different dissociative disorders have different root causes and different symptoms, they are often treated differently. A dissociative fugue, for instance, is usually brought on by a current life stressor. So, the best treatment is probably psychotherapy to cope with stress, as well as medication to lessen anxiety.
Depersonalization Disorder and Dissociative Identity Disorder are both linked to long-standing habits of using dissociation to deal with stress. In order to conquer these disorders, sufferers will need to learn how to stay present during times of stress. They may also need long-term psychotherapy to process the early trauma that first caused them to dissociate, as well as medication to lessen anxiety and depression.
Dissociative amnesia can be linked to stress in the present or the past. Sometimes, it goes away on its own. Other times, it requires psychotherapy to help process the troubling memories that had previously been repressed.
With proper treatment, all of the dissociative disorders can be overcome, helping sufferers go on to lead satisfying and fulfilling lives.
What is Dissociative Identity Disorder?
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is a condition in which a person exhibits the behaviors of two or more distinct identities. Often various identities display amnesia for the actions of other identities, making people with DID seem forgetful. Formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder, the condition was first popularized in the media by books the books The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil.
How common is Dissociative Identity Disorder?
There is a myth that Dissociative Identity Disorder is extremely rare, but that is not true. Approximately 1% of the general population suffers from DID, making it about as prevalent as schizophrenia. People think DID is rare, because many people with the condition don’t know they have it.
How does Dissociative Identity present?
Despite media portrayals of DID as a dramatic condition in which various alternate personalities announce their presence and act strangely, in truth the changes among identities are usually subtle. They are so subtle, in fact, that even those closest to someone with DID might not realize he or she has it.
It is the nature of DID for sufferers not to recognize when they have switched personalities. While they often forget the things they’ve done when they are a different identity, people with DID also have what is known as “amnesia for the amnesia”—meaning they do not recognize that they have forgotten time.
What causes Dissociative Identity Disorder?
It’s generally believed that Dissociative Identity Disorder is caused by severe and repeated abuse in early childhood. In order to cope with frightening and dangerous situations, the child dissociates (or “zones out”) during abuse. Over time, the repeated dissociation affects the child’s still forming personality, leading to abnormal development.
The so-called “controversy” surrounding Dissociative Identity Disorder
Many sites and articles claim that Dissociative Identity Disorder is a “controversial” diagnosis. This is not true. Dissociative Identity Disorder is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and has been for decades. In addition, all mainstream organizations that study psychological trauma recognize the validity of DID.
What are remedies for Dissociative Identity Disorder?
Because people with Dissociative Identity Disorder usually don’t realize they have it, they rarely seek treatment for the disorder. Instead, people with DID often seek treatment for other conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD or suicidality. During the course of therapy, if the therapist has had training in dissociative disorders, he or she may be able to recognize a case of DID. However, because most therapists haven’t been trained to look for symptoms of DID and believe it to be extremely rare, the condition is routinely misdiagnosed—on average for seven years.
Once a person knows that they are suffering from DID, he or she should work with a competent therapist to treat the disorder. Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder usually takes many years of psychotherapy. In addition, medication is often needed to treat depression and anxiety, which are both common in people with DID.
With proper diagnosis and treatment, people with Dissociative Identity Disorder can improve immensely and go on to lead happy, fulfilling lives.
Dr. Michelle Stevens is a psychologist, writer, and expert on trauma. She wrote the bestselling book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (Putnam, 2017).