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Help With Dissociative Disorders

Curated and updated for the community by APA

Dissociative disorders involve problems with memory, identity, emotion, perception, behavior and sense of self. Dissociative symptoms can potentially disrupt every area of mental functioning.

Examples of dissociative symptoms include the experience of detachment or feeling as if one is outside one’s body, and loss of memory or amnesia. Dissociative disorders are frequently associated with previous experience of trauma.

There are three types of dissociative disorders:

  • Dissociative identity disorder
  • Dissociative amnesia
  • Depersonalization/derealization disorder

See more on symptoms & treatment

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Can people actually have “multiple personalities” or a “split personality”?

Dissociative identity disorder involves a lack of connection among a person’s sense of identity, memory and consciousness. People with this disorder do not have more than one personality but rather less than one personality. (The name was changed recently from ‘multiple personality disorder’ to ‘dissociative identity disorder.’) This disorder usually arises in response to physical and sexual abuse in childhood as a means of surviving mistreatment by people who should be nurturing and protecting. Read More

Are people with dissociative identity disorder often misdiagnosed?

Yes. They are sometimes misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia, because their belief that they have different identities could be interpreted as a delusion. They sometimes experience dissociated identities as auditory hallucinations (hearing voices). Their symptoms do not improve with antipsychotic medication, but the emotions they display get flatter. This can leading to the mistaken belief that they have schizophrenia and to further ineffective increases in medication. Another common misdiagnosis is borderline personality disorder. People with dissociative identity disorder frequently also have depression. Read More

What symptoms would family members see in a person had dissociative identity disorder? Can friends/family members tell when a person with dissociative identity disorder “switches”?

You may notice sudden changes in mood and behavior. People with dissociative identity disorder may forget or deny saying or doing things that family members witnessed. Family members can usually tell when a person “switches.” The transitions can be sudden and startling. The person may go from being fearful, dependent and excessively apologetic to being angry and domineering. He or she may report not remembering something they said just minutes earlier. Read More

Once a person is being treated for a dissociative disorder, how can family members best support and help him/her?

Be open and accepting in your responses. Do not ‘take sides’ with one or another component of their identity. Rather view them as portions of the person as a whole. We are all different in different situations, but we see this as different sides of ourselves. Try to maintain that perspective with the person with dissociative disorder. Also, help them to protect themselves from any trauma or abuse. Read More

spiegel-expert

About the Expert:

Dr. David Spiegel
Professor and Associate Chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences
Director, Center on Stress and Health
Medical Director, Center for Integrative Medicine
Stanford University School of Medicine

Sandra's Story

Sandra was a 25-year-old soldier hospitalized for sudden changes in behavior and episodes of apparently poor memory. She was confused about her recent history, and believed that she was in a different hospital located 800 miles from the place where she had in fact been admitted. The diagnoses initially considered included schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder and substance abuse. She was started on neuroleptics (tranquilizers) with little benefit.

Read More

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SEPT 25 2020

Novel neuroimaging study on dissociative symptoms reveals wounds of childhood trauma

Science Daily

A team led by investigators at McLean Hospital has now found that brain imaging analyses can uncover changes in functional connections between brain regions linked to a specific individual's dissociative symptoms following trauma. Being traumatized can cause what are known as dissociative symptoms -- such as experiencing amnesia, an out-of-body experience, feeling emotionally numb -- which may help people cope. Experiencing these symptoms intensely or for a long time, however, can negatively impact an individual's ability to function. 

SEPT 16, 2020

The brain rhythms that detach us from reality
Nature

The rhythmic activity of a single layer of neurons has now been shown to cause dissociation — an experience involving a feeling of disconnection from the surrounding world. The state of dissociation is commonly described as feeling detached from reality or having an ‘out of body’ experience. The neurological basis of dissociation has been a mystery, but writing in Nature, researchers describe a localized brain rhythm that underlies this state. Their findings will have far-reaching implications for neuroscience. 

JUNE 10, 2020

Brooklyn-born author chronicles years-long journey to dissociative identity disorder in new memoir
AMNY

78-year-old Vivian Conan knew from a young age that something was different for her. It wasn’t until she was 46 that she finally learned that she had dissociative identity disorder. Her new book, “Losing the Atmosphere: A Memoir, A Baffling Disorder, A Search for Help, and the Therapist Who Understood,” explores Conan’s journey to finding the correct mental health diagnosis while hoping to break down some of the stigmas behind those with mental illness.

Physician Reviewed

Philip Wang, M.D., Dr.P.H.
August 2018