Dissociative disorders are a form of mental illness in which individuals lose their connection with reality involuntarily apart from side effects of drugs or alcohol. It is estimated that one in every two people will experience a dissociative episode at some point. However, only about two percent of the population will meet the criteria of one of the three dissociative diagnoses.1
The good news is that there are effective treatment options for dissociative disorders that can provide relief and the possibility of a health life for patients and their loved ones.
Many people who develop a dissociative disorder have had significant trauma in their past. They also find that stress exacerbates symptoms of their disorder. Although symptoms vary among the different disorders, treatment generally involves a combination of medication and talk therapies.
Types of Dissociative Disorders
There are three main dissociative disorders as defined by the American Psychiatric Association. They are related in their commonality of dissociation in which a person experiences a disconnection from some sort of reality — like behavior, identity, memories and thoughts. Most all people experience this phenomenon at some point briefly, but the three disorders are more persistent and troubling.
They include the following:
- Dissociative identity disorder – Previously called multiple personality disorder, it is characterized by having two or more different identities. The different identities carry different personality, memories and behaviors. Many people with this diagnosis had significant trauma in childhood.
- Dissociative amnesia – People with dissociative amnesia have significant memory loss, often surrounding past (particularly childhood) emotional abuse and neglect. It is rare to lose all past memories; rather, most people have amnesia regarding a specific event or period of time.
- Depersonalization/derealization disorder – Depersonalization is when people have an out-of-body experience and feel is if they are watching what is going on in their lives. Derealization is similar but the detachment is from the world—feeling like the world around them is not real. Most people, however, realize this is happening and feel burdened by it.
When diagnosing dissociative disorders, doctors often will do a physical exam as well as talk through your medical history in order to effectively rule out any physical ailments or medications that could cause similar symptoms or side-effects. After that, doctors will talk through symptoms as well as past experiences to diagnose the dissociative disorder, as they all often relate to past trauma and abuse.
Treating Dissociative Disorders
Treatment for dissociative disorders usually involves a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Medication is used only to treat tangential symptoms of each disorder, not dissociation itself. The medication allows the patient to find relief from related symptoms while learning in talk-therapy to identify and cope with dissociation triggers and symptoms.
The three common psychotherapies employed for dissociative disorders include the following:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – Because depression is a common symptom of dissociative disorders, many therapists with use CBT to help patients with negative thinking associated with depression. Patients will learn to identify negative thoughts early in their formation as well as how to deal with them appropriately.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – The goal is DBT is stronger coping skills when feeling impulsive and out of control emotionally. Therapists may teach through exercises like meditation and mindfulness.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – EMDR helps patients revisit traumatic memories in a less stressful process in order to help reduce the stress associated with these memories.
Other therapies, like hypnosis, may be used in some cases for specific disorders to allow patients to deal with symptoms in a hypnotic state.
Finding Help for Dissociative Disorders
A diagnosis of a dissociative disorder can feel overwhelming. However, many people find great help through appropriate treatment. Like any journey of healing, it will take time and work on your part to put into practice what you learn in therapy; however, a healthy life is possible.
If you would you like help finding treatment for dissociative disorders, please give us a call at our 24-hour, toll-free helpline, (877) 345-1887. Our caring admissions coordinators are ready to answer any of your questions and connect you with outstanding treatment centers that can help you heal. Please call now.
1 "Dissociative Disorders." National Alliance on Mental Illness, Accessed September 21, 2018.
2 Wang, Philip, "What Are Dissociative Disorders?" American Psychiatric Association, August 2018.