What Are Dissociative Disorders?

Dissociative disorders involve issues with emotion, identity, memory, perception, behavior, and sense of self. They can potentially disrupt every aspect of mental functioning.

Some examples of dissociative symptoms include experiencing or feeling as if one is outside of their body, loss of memory, or amnesia. They are frequently associated with previous experiences of trauma. There are three types of dissociative disorders:

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

Dissociation means a disconnection between a person’s memories, feelings, actions, thoughts, or sense of who he or she is. It is a normal process that everyone has experienced. Common dissociation includes daydreaming, highway hypnosis, getting lost in a book or movie, and losing touch with their immediate surroundings. During traumatic experiences like accidents, disasters, or crime victimization, dissociation can help the person tolerate what may be too difficult to think about. In those situations, they may dissociate the memory of the place, circumstances, or feelings of the overwhelming event to mentally escape fear, pain, and horror. It can make it difficult to remember the details of the experience later on.

Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative Identity Disorder associates with overwhelming experiences, traumatic events, and/or abuse that occurred in childhood. It was previously referred to as multiple personality disorder. Some symptoms of dissociative identity disorder include:

  • The existence of two or more distinct identities (“personality states”). The identities are accompanied by changes in behavior, memory, and thinking. Signs and symptoms may be observed by others or reported by the individual. They happen involuntarily, are unwanted, and can cause distress.
  • They may feel like they have suddenly become observers of their own speech, actions, and their bodies may feel different like a small child, the opposite gender, huge and muscular.
  • Ongoing gaps in memory about everyday events, personal information, and/or past traumatic events.
  • Symptoms cause significant distress or problems in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning.
  • Attitude and personal preferences (food, activities, clothes) may suddenly change and then shift back.

The disturbances can not be a normal part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice. As noted in the DSM-5, some cultures around the world, the experience of being possessed, is a normal part of spiritual practices and is NOT dissociative disorders.

Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder
Depersonalization/derealization disorder involves ongoing or recurring experience of one or both of these conditions:

  • Depersonalization- experiences of unreality or detachment from one’s mind, self or body. People may feel as though they are outside of their bodies and watching the events happening to them.
  • Derealization- experiences of unreality or detachment from one’s surroundings. People may feel as if things and people in the world around them are not real.

During the altered experiences, they are aware of the reality and that their experience is unusual. It can be very distressful, even though the person may be unreactive and/or lack emotion. It can begin in early childhood. The average age of a person who experiences the disorder is 16. Less than 20 percent of people with depersonalization/derealization disorder first experience symptoms after age 20.

Dissociative Amnesia

Dissociative amnesia involves not being able to recall information about oneself that is not considered normal forgetting. It is usually related to a traumatic or stressful event and may be:

  • Localized– unable to remember an event or period of time (most common)
  • Selective– Unable to remember a specific aspect of an event or some events within a period of time
  • Generalized– Complete loss of identity and life history (rare)

Dissociative amnesia is associated with childhood trauma and experiences of emotional abuse and neglect. They may not be aware of the memory loss, have only limited awareness, or minimize the importance of memory loss about a specific event or time.


  • If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.

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