Dissociative Disorder Research Articles & Resources
Imogen SharmaLast updated:
Erin L. George, MFTMedical editor
Dissociation is another word for separation or detachment. People with dissociative disorders sometimes have a disconnected sense of self. This condition can affect emotions, memory, perception, behavior, motor control, consciousness, relationships, and body representation.
Dissociation may begin as a coping mechanism — a way of handling stress — often during childhood. However, affected people may dissociate chronically, which can cause difficulty with functioning. (1) Some people's symptoms are pronounced and impact everyday life, while others have milder and/or episodic experiences.
Between 1% and 5% of the global population has a dissociative disorder. (2) The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists three dissociative disorders:
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Dissociation can be an automatic response that occurs to limit the amount of emotional pain a person feels in response to trauma. (6)(7) However, this doesn't fully explain dissociative disorders, which are persistent, impact functioning, cause distress, and can lead to unfavorable outcomes.
A popular theory proposes that attachment style is another key contributing factor in the development of these disorders. (8) Neuroimaging studies have shown infants with a disorganized attachment style who also experience trauma are most at risk for dissociative disorders.
Disorganized attachment is found in children who are unsure of whether they should love or fear their caregivers due to inconsistent, neglectful, or abusive parenting. Dissociation helps them deny the fearful feelings and try to maintain a positive relationship with the caregiver. This can leave an impression on the developing brain, and long-term dissociating can lead to a fragmented sense of self and hamper daily life. (9)
Two individuals might respond differently to a similar distressing or traumatic event. (10) As such, not everyone who's experienced trauma and has a disorganized attachment style develops a dissociative disorder.
Because there are several types of dissociative disorders, symptoms vary depending on the diagnosis and individual factors. (11) Signs could include: (12)
Everyone has the potential to dissociate from time to time, and it's not harmful so long as it's occasional and doesn't restrict functioning. Nonetheless, it can be tricky for people with dissociative disorders to understand or recognize their symptoms. Those who feel that forgetfulness, numbed emotions, and disconnection from reality are negatively influencing their life might consider seeking professional guidance.
Dissociative disorders can be mistaken for other mental health conditions, and dissociation can be a standalone symptom of mental illness. Associated diagnoses include: (13) (14)
Dissociative disorder treatment is all about helping the individual reintegrate the fragmented components of their identity. Think of an infant's sense of self and how they relate to the world as a picture puzzle. When parents are consistently loving, present, and understanding of their child, the puzzle pieces fall into place, leaving a clear picture of the individual's identity and how they relate to the world. If caregivers are unable to provide the necessary care or have unrealistic expectations, the child's identity and perception of their environment might remain fragmented. (15)
With guidance from a licensed therapist, it's possible to work toward filling in the missing puzzle pieces and reintegrating the self. The type of therapy that works best depends on the person's unique symptoms, medical history, and whether any co-occurring disorders are present. Common therapies include:
The most important thing to remember when it comes to receiving a dissociative disorder diagnosis is that it's okay to seek help. It can be difficult to be vulnerable and reach out, but there are medical professionals and support groups that exist to offer compassionate care to those who need it.
Some coping strategies include:
There's plenty that family members and friends can do to help a loved one with a dissociative disorder diagnosis. To support them, aim to be: