What is a Dissociative Disorder?

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  • Written By: Liz Fernandez
  • Edited By: Kathryn Hulick
  • Last Modified Date: 12 July 2019
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A dissociative disorder is a type of mental reaction in which an individual experiences a break from reality in his or her consciousness, often characterized by a loss of memory or identity. These disorders are usually caused by a traumatic event; it is a way for the person to handle the trauma by separating his or her mind from the experience. There are five different types of dissociate disorders recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, including dissociative identity disorder; depersonalization disorder; dissociative amnesia; dissociative fugue; and dissociative disorder not otherwise specified, which includes types of dissociation that don't fit into the other categories.

What was previously called multiple personality disorder is now called dissociative identity disorder (DID). This type of dissociative disorder has made its way into the public consciousness through books, movies, and even TV shows. People who suffer from this disorder develop more than one personality or identity. These different identities are often dramatically different from one another, and may have distinct memories. There is some debate about the validity of this condition, and the vast number of reported cases have been diagnosed in patients in North America.


Depersonalization disorder causes a person to feel detached from his or her mind or body. Some people who experience this describe themselves as being in a dreamlike state. They tend to feel a lack of control over their bodies as well as their actions. In severe cases, these people can have trouble believing the world around them is real.

Dissociative amnesia involves the loss of memory related to a traumatic event. Unlike more common forms of amnesia, this type is not caused by head or other physical trauma. Localized dissociative amnesia involves losing memories related to a specific event, whereas generalized amnesia involves a person forgetting all parts of his or her life. Selective amnesia occurs when only some details of an event or a specific time are lost; systematized amnesia involves losing memories with a certain common theme.

Arguably the rarest of these disorders, dissociative fugue occurs when a person suddenly travels away from home for no obvious reason. Someone suffering from this illness may travel for a few hours or as long as a few months. During this time, the sufferer may be confused about who he is or even completely forget his identity.

Dissociative disorder symptoms are often seen in other mental illnesses, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, and depression. A doctor will often use the same medications prescribed for those illnesses to treat a dissociative disorder patient. Psychotherapy is also a component of treatment to help patients deal with the traumatic events that are the underlying cause of the problem.



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