Restorations Therapy Blog

What Are Dissociative Disorders?

by on Tuesday, March 31st, 2020

Dissociation takes place when an individual experiences a sense of being detached from their mind, body, or both. This manifests as a disruption of memory, identity, awareness, or perception. Examples include not recognizing one’s memories, actions, thoughts, and in extreme cases who they are. In a nutshell, the experience of dissociation can be described as a pervasive sense of being disconnected from reality. Dissociation occurs across all age groups, and individuals from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds can be affected.

What precedes a dissociative disorder? 

Disconnecting from reality often occurs as a means of dealing with long-term trauma, stress, abuse, or a catastrophic event.

Examples of acute and chronic traumatic events include repeated sexual, physical, or mental abuse, an accident, a natural disaster, military combat, or being a victim of a crime. The vast majority of individuals diagnosed with a dissociative disorder, approximately 90%, have experienced severe childhood abuse or neglect.

Dissociation occurs in response to such events as a protective measure. Psychologically removing oneself from a traumatic situation can relieve overwhelming pain and trauma, providing a window of time in which to distance oneself and process what has happened. It can serve as a useful buffer when it is used in the short term but becomes problematic if it is used as a long-term coping mechanism. In this case, continued dissociation takes the person outside the realm of reality, and the result can be a wholesale loss of memory for long periods of time.

Symptoms of dissociation include long-term memory gaps that may involve past traumas, everyday events, or personal information.

As you may imagine, experiencing an unstable self-concept leads to problems in other areas of life. People who experience dissociation frequently encounter problems at work, in school, socially, etc., and on a continuum that ranges from a minimal to a severe impact of functioning.

On one extreme of the continuum are suicidal thoughts and actions, self-mutilation, and other self-injurious behavior. It is estimated that over 70% of outpatients diagnosed with dissociation have attempted suicide at least once.

There Are Several Types Of Dissociative States

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). DID occurs largely as a result of the individual having suffered devastating, repetitive, and overwhelming abuse or trauma in childhood. Dissociative Identity Disorder was previously referred to as multiple personality disorder.

DID is characterized by the existence of two or more personality states, each with unique cognitions, behaviors, and feelings. These different states are also referred to as alters and alternate personalities.

Many cultures across the globe describe a similar experience to DID, that of being “possessed.” DID is distinct from this type of phenomenon in that it is not a normal or expected component of social norms. For example, is not considered to be a widely accepted religious or cultural practice.

With relevant treatment modalities such as psychotherapy, many people with DID successfully address their symptoms and learn ways to increase overall function in order to live a satisfying and meaningful life.

Depersonalization and Derealization Disorders

In contrast to DID, Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder is characterized by significant, chronic experiences of depersonalization and derealization. Depersonalization involves feeling “unreal” or detached from one’s body, mind, or self. Oftentimes individuals describe this state as one of feeling as if they are outside of their bodies, watching as events unfold.

Derealization is a bit different and involves the experience that the environment and people are not real. It is described as an altered sense of being disconnected from one’s immediate surroundings and is distressful for the individual.

The average age at onset for Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder is 16, with fewer than 1 in 5 individuals experiencing the condition after age 20.

Lastly, Dissociative Amnesia is characterized by the inability to recall information about oneself. This is not the same as simply forgetting, as it is primarily brought on by a traumatic or stressful event.

Diagnosis Is Difficult, But Worth It

It is believed that the majority of people with a dissociative disorder will go undiagnosed even though accurate diagnostic methods exist. There are several reasons for this, including a lack of education about dissociation among healthcare professionals, a predominance of symptoms that are not obvious to untrained observers, and doubt among some experts that the disorder exists.

In addition, the affected individuals themselves may not be aware of the signs and symptoms of dissociation. And, because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, even if they are aware or concerned, they may choose to stay silent because of embarrassment, fear, or not knowing how to explain what they’re experiencing.

Yet, it is imperative that these individuals receive help, in part because at least 75% also have a co-occurring condition. In other words, they may be experiencing an additional issue such as substance use disorder, mood disorder, PTSD, anxiety disorder, etc.

It is significant to note that any treatment that is being used for a co-occurring condition is not likely to be as effective as it would be if the dissociation were also addressed.

What is the best way to treat dissociative disorders? Psychotherapy has been shown to have a significant and beneficial impact on the condition when both the psychological and physiological elements of dissociation are addressed.

Dissociative disorders are prevalent yet often undiagnosed conditions, even though the symptoms can be severe and debilitating. But with appropriate intervention, significant progress is possible when dissociation is correctly diagnosed and treated.

If you have questions about dissociation, don’t hesitate to contact a professional healthcare provider with your concerns so that together you can explore and address what you are experiencing.

Located in Centennial, Colorado, Restoration Therapy works with patients who are struggling with addiction, intimacy disorders, and trauma who are seeking treatment. Restoration Therapy offers individualized and group therapy, workshops, psycho-educational classes, and more to. For more information, please call us at (720) 446-6585

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