A dissociative disorder is a mental health condition that alters a person’s sense of reality. They ‘dissociate’, or switch off from reality, to cope with it. This feeling of being disconnected from yourself or from the world can be extremely distressing, significantly affecting work and personal life.
Someone with a dissociative disorder may have memory loss or may feel:
- that their body or the world around them is unreal
- uncertain about who they are
- that they have many different identities
Dissociative disorder is thought to be caused by childhood trauma. It can affect people at any age and is the result of the brain adapting to a difficult early life.
There are three main types of dissociative disorders.
- Dissociative Amnesia
- Depersonalisation or Derealisation Disorder
- Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative Amnesia: Someone with dissociative amnesia will repeatedly have periods where they cannot remember information about themselves or about events in their past life. They may also forget a learnt talent or skill. These gaps in memory are much more severe than normal forgetfulness, and are not the result of an underlying medical condition.
Some people with dissociative amnesia will find themselves in a strange place without knowing how they got there. They may have travelled there purposefully, or wandered in a confused state. These blank episodes may last minutes, hours or days and rarely, months or years.
Depersonalisation/Derealisation Disorder: Depersonalisation or feeling detached from oneself, observing oneself and one’s feelings and thoughts as if they belong to someone else. Derealisation or seeing other people and the environment around you as dream-like and unreal. Objects may change in shape, size or colour. Episodes of depersonalisation or derealisation may last just a few moments and come and go over many years, or may be ongoing.
Dissociative Identity Disorder: A multiple personality disorder, this is the most extreme of the three types. A struggle to define oneself, feeling the presence of other identities, which may each have their own names, voices, personal histories and mannerisms are features of dissociative identity disorder.
How do Dissociative Disorders develop?
Many people with a dissociative disorder will have experienced a traumatic event in the past. Often, this traumatic event will have been physical, sexual or emotional abuse suffered during childhood, although some people ‘dissociate’ after experiencing war, kidnapping or even an invasive medical procedure.
Switching off from reality is often a normal defense mechanism that helps the person cope with trauma. It becomes dysfunctional when the trauma ceases but one still acts and lives as if it is.
There are various possible treatment. Some people with dissociative disorders will benefit from a course of psychotherapy or counselling aimed at helping those with dissociative disorders cope with the underlying cause and manage the periods of feeling disconnected. Those who have suffered a traumatic event in the past might also benefit from a technique called eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR involves making side-to-side eye movements that may help the malfunctioning part of the brain to process distressing memories and flashbacks.
There is no medication to specifically treat dissociation.
Read more about Dissociative Disorders.