What is a Dissociative Disorder?

What is a Dissociative Disorder?

A dissociative state is very common and is experienced, in fact, by everyone at some point in their lives. But when the state of mind occurs repeatedly and can be traced back to significant stress or trauma experiences, being dissociative is viewed as a distinct diagnosis called a dissociative disorder.


Dissociative disorders are associated with a relatively rare mental health condition known as multiple personality disorder. As such, the idea of having a dissociative disorder is very alarming. It should not be. There are many people with relatively mild dissociative habits that go untreated throughout their lives, and nobody is the wiser. As said before, everyone dissociates on occasion, which we will describe shortly and should not be confused with the most severe cases of multiple personality disorders.

Here is a simple and common example. People who have been in a car accident notice that while the accident is occurring, time seems to slow down. Events seem very clear for the moment. In fact, the idea of “my life flashing before my eyes” is a type of dissociative frame of mind. It’s when your brain can’t handle the stress of the moment, so it seems to go off on a different tangent. Many people in this situation feel they are watching themselves go through the motions – like the time I lost a finger, and it seemed like I was watched myself being driven to the hospital. I was having a normal conversation with the driver about the weather and such; meanwhile, my brain was overwhelmed with the reality of the event.


Dissociative disorder is a form of escapism that is natural for brains when they are overwhelmed. It is an escape from reality, but it’s a harmless escape and very natural; it is not something you can control. It just happens.


However, people who are severely traumatized repeatedly – young abused children or persons who have been through repeated stress during war – develop the habit of dissociating. Again, it is involuntary. You can’t do this on purpose. But their brains tend to react to stress by “going elsewhere” for a while. How long? That depends on the individual and the amount of stress involved.


Symptoms of Dissociative Disorder


Symptoms of dissociative disorder include loss of memory and, since the brain tends to check out once in a while, event amnesia. Other symptoms include a sense of detachment cognitively and emotionally. More serious cases include difficulty with relationships and productivity at work, the inability to handle even small amounts of stress, panic attacks, depression, and suicidal ideation. More severe cases include what could be termed a blurred sense of identity, which might be the beginning of multiple personality disorder.


See A Doctor


It is important to see a doctor if any of these symptoms persist or reappear again and again. Unsafe behavior, severe panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts are clear markers for calling a doctor or a therapist. (Also, call a Suicide Prevention hotline any time you have thoughts about ending your life.)




The two basic forms of intervention for dissociative disorder are talk therapy and medication. Both can be very effective, although talk therapy requires both a time commitment and an economic commitment, given you may have to take time off from work.




There are several styles of psychotherapy that are effective with dissociative disorder. These include cognitive therapy, cognitive-behavior therapy, and emotional therapies that teach calming techniques. Bio-feedback is also useful, as patients can learn to recognize early signs of a dissociative event and react by staying out of harm’s way, taking medication, or other options.




There are no specific medications on the market to help combat dissociative disorder, but there are medications that can relieve patients of some of the symptoms. Anti-anxiety medication can be very helpful. Anti-depressants can also help.


Seek Help


If you fear you have a form of dissociative disorder, see a physician for a professional assessment. In San Diego, call Pacific Medical Care at 619-333-8114 for an appointment.


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