What Are Dissociative Disorders? Definition, Causes, Facts
Dissociation (disconnection from aspects of oneself and/or the environment) is something that people do naturally, so what, then, are dissociative disorders? Like all disorders, dissociative disorders have symptoms so severe as to cause great distress to a person and his or her life, and this is distinctly different from an individual who may experience dissociation occasionally and without harm.
What Is Dissociation?
If you've ever driven to work or the grocery store, gotten there and not remembered how you got there, you have experienced a very normal form of dissociation.
Dissociation is a lack of connection between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions and/or identity. Normal forms of dissociation are minor and not problematic whereas when dissociative disorders are defined, they have severe symptoms that cause problems in a person's life.
Causes of Dissociative Disorders
Dissociative disorders are typically caused through trauma as a way of coping with this stress. According to the Mayo Clinic:
"Dissociative 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."
Dissociative Disorders in the DSM-5
The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines four types of dissociative disorders:
- Dissociative amnesia (with a possible subdiagnosis of dissociative fugue, which involves confused wandering with amnesia) – an inability to recall important information to the extent that it cannot be explained by normal forgetfulness.
- Dissociative identity disorder – characterized by two or more identities or personality traits within a single individual.
- Depersonalization/derealisation disorder – major detachment wherein a person feels that objects around him or her are changing in shape or size or that people are automated and inhuman. A person may also feel detached from his or her own body.
- Other dissociative identity disorder not specified – a dissociative disorder that doesn't fall specifically into one of the other three diagnoses.
Dissociative Disorder Facts and Statistics
Dissociative disorders have been studied, but not to the extent of many other disorders so dissociative disorder facts are often disputed. That said, some dissociative disorder facts and statistics include:
- An estimated 2.4% of people meet the diagnostic criteria for depersonalization/derealisation disorder, although this estimate is argued by many and, in reality, it may be lower.
- Dissociative identity disorder may be observed in 1-3% of the population.
- The accepted medications for treatment for dissociative disorders includes second-generation antipsychotics like aripiprazole (Abilify) and some second-generation anticonvulsants such as levetiracetam (Keppra). Antidepressants may also be useful.
- Some believe that dissociative disorders should be considered trauma-related disorders.
- Dissociative identity disorder used to be known as multiple personality disorder. The name was changed in 1994.
- According to the Sidran Institute (devoted to education around trauma disorders), most people with a dissociative disorder also have a posttraumatic stress disorder.
Last Updated: 16 October 2018
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD