Someone with a dissociative disorder escapes reality in ways that are involuntary and unhealthy. The person with a dissociative disorder experiences a disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions and identity.
The symptoms of dissociative disorders — ranging from amnesia to alternate identities — depend in part on the type you have. Symptoms usually develop as a reaction to trauma and help keep difficult memories at bay. Times of stress can temporarily worsen symptoms, making them more obvious. Dissociative disorders cause problems with functioning in everyday life.
Treatment for dissociative disorders may include talk therapy (psychotherapy) and medication. Although treating dissociative disorders can be difficult, many people learn new ways of coping and lead healthy, productive lives.
Signs and symptoms of dissociative disorders include:
- Memory loss (amnesia) of certain time periods, events and people
- Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and attempts
- A sense of being detached from yourself
- A perception of the people and things around you as distorted and unreal
- A blurred sense of identity
- Significant stress or problems in your relationships, work or other important areas of your life.
Dissociative disorders usually develop as a way to cope with trauma. The disorders most often form in children subjected to long-term physical, sexual or emotional abuse or, less often, a home environment that's frightening or highly unpredictable. The stress of war or natural disasters also can bring on dissociative disorders.
Personal identity is still forming during childhood. So a child is more able than an adult is to step outside of himself or herself and observe trauma as though it's happening to a different person. A child who learns to dissociate in order to endure an extended period of youth may use this coping mechanism in response to stressful situations throughout life.
Psychotherapy is the primary treatment for dissociative disorders. This form of therapy, also known as talk therapy, counseling or psychosocial therapy, involves talking about your disorder and related issues with a mental health provider.
Your therapist will work to help you understand the cause of your condition and to form new ways of coping with stressful circumstances. Over time, your therapist may help you talk more about the trauma you experienced, but generally only when you have the coping skills and relationship with your therapist to safely have these conversations.
Although there are no medications that specifically treat dissociative disorders, your doctor may prescribe antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications or antipsychotic medications to help control the mental health symptoms associated with dissociative disorders.