Introduction to Dissociative Disorders

Welcome to our Dissociative Disorders topic center. The Dissociative disorders are a family of disorders that are united by the fact that they all involve the process of dissociation. Dissociation is a mental process involving changes in normal memory and attention that lead to changes in the availability and accessibility of memory. Under normal conditions people are able to recall most everything they experience. By contrast, dissociative people may be unable to recall memories for events that they experienced while dissociated.

Dissociation is thought to be a relatively common mental process engaged in by many people, not all of whom have a mental disorder. Very mild forms of dissociation are quite common, and are probably behind the experience of ‘spacing out' temporarily. Another relatively common experience of dissociation is found in states of ‘depersonalization' where one has the sensation of being detached from ones mental processes as though one were alien in one's own skin.

More severe and pathological forms of dissociation often occur as reactions to very stressful events such as war, death, abuse and other forms of trauma. Dissociative Amnesia involves a loss of memory for personal information associated with traumatic events. In the condition known as a Fugue state, a person literally becomes confused about who they are, and travels to a different city where he or she might assume a new identity (for an example of what this might look like, see the recent Hollywood movie, “Nurse Betty”). One of the most severe forms of dissociative illness is known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly as multiple personality disorder). DID is thought to be a reaction to severe abuse beginning in early childhood. The abused child stumbles upon dissociation as a means of coping with memories of abuse, often at the hands of parents or caregivers. Pervasive use of dissociation as a means of coping allows the child to hold on to the necessary illusion of a ‘good' caregiver, but at the same time, severely interferes with the child's developing sense of self such that the child grows up to have multiple personality fragments with unevenly shared memories, instead of a single unified sense of self.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder by the DSM, even though it is often the case that PTSD involves dissociation. Please see our Trauma section for more information on PTSD.

More detailed information on the various dissociative disorders is available through the documents and links attached to this and child topic centers. Please browse these resources to gain in understanding of these disorders.