Dissociative Disorder is a complex mental process that allows children and adults to cope with an extremely distressing or traumatic experience.
“Dissociation” can look different from person to person, as well as take many forms. Dissociation can appear as “blocking out” a painful experience from memory, feeling detached from the event or experience, or lacking control of one’s body.
We have all attempted to block out unpleasant feelings, memories, or images from our mind. However, repetitively blocking out an unpleasant memory or distressing thoughts can result in the development of dissociative disorders. Dissociative disorders have been positively correlated to sexual abuse/assault, repeated exposure to a traumatic event, perception of threat, or childhood trauma.
Dissociative disorders change the way a person perceives and experiences reality leading to a distorted view of the world, individual experiences, and the manner in which the sufferers engage with others and the world around them. A dissociative disorder impairs the normal state of awareness and limits or alters one’s sense of identity, memory or consciousness.
Dissociative disorders are characterized as mentally separating oneself from reality. Dissociating can appear as chronic daydreaming or fantasizing leading to a reprieve from negative or distressing thoughts and feelings. Repetitive dissociation from people and events can serve as an avoidance from emotional pain so intense the sufferer may even experience physical side effects such as; chronic migraines, nausea, heart palpitations, body aches, etc.
Most suffers of dissociative identity disorder have experienced a traumatic event or have endured ongoing exposure to abuse or neglect during childhood leading to a split or separation from reality. Typically, dissociative symptoms appear to serve as a defence mechanism protecting the sufferer from emotionally painful or distressing thoughts or feelings.
Other characteristics of Dissociative Disorder include the development of personalities or split in personalities allowing the sufferers to separate themselves from their experiences in an effort to avoid emotional and or physical pain and distress. Once the personality splits or separates, each begins to evolve with time as a way of coping with future traumas or the perception of threat.
I first met Ruth one year ago following an incident at work that almost resulted in her termination. One of the first things Ruth said to me when we met was, “I am just here to save my job. I have been in and out of therapy for years, I am therapied out.”
The comments made by Ruth during our initial meeting were a classic response made by many of the clients I had seen and treated in therapy. According to Ruth, she had already received multiple conflicting diagnoses of depression, anxiety, or “some other type of mood disorder.” Ruth insisted she did not believe in or “buy into” the benefits of therapy. Therefore, we had to tread through the therapeutic process slowly, in a manner that allowed Ruth to maintain a certain degree of control over the process.
Pretty early on in our therapeutic relationship, Ruth disclosed she suffered from constant migraine headaches and often daydreamed most of her day. After several weeks in therapy, Ruth disclosed ongoing sexual molestation by a close family member from age 5-11.
After making the disclosure Ruth began to express fear and uncertainty regarding gaps in memory, losing track of time, chronic daydreaming or fantasizing that interfered with both vocational and personal relationships. She described being “comforted” by the thought of mentally fleeing to a better existence, one unlike her own.
According to Ruth, in her earlier daydreams, she would physically be a child daydreaming of herself as a young adult. Unlike her childhood daydreams when she fantasized about being older, once she reached her 30’s and 40’s, her daydreams changed to that of being younger. The realization of her actual age and her fantasized age has caused a considerable amount of distress for Ruth.
Ruth believes she has lost a considerable amount of time in a fantasy world that has prevented her from knowing or understanding the person she is now. Ruth continues to struggle with reconciling the image of the “aged face” she sees in her mirror and that of the fixed image she has of herself in her fantasies. The issues and challenges expressed by Ruth are more common than you might think, as many people with Dissociative Disorder are often misdiagnosed. Unfortunately, those who are misdiagnosed will receive inappropriate or ineffective treatment leading to ongoing confusion and frustration.
8 Common Signs and Symptoms of Dissociative Disorders Include:
- Memory or cognition impairments or issues
- Chronic daydreaming or fantasizing
- Loss of time
- Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and attempts
- Feelings of detachment from oneself
- Distorted sense of reality, people, or events
- Distorted sense of identity
- Significant stress or problems in relationships, work or other important areas of your life
Although, Dissociative Disorder can be very destabilizing to one’s life and functioning, there are several recommended and effective treatment options.
One of the most effective treatment options is individual psychotherapy. Individual psychotherapy is typically used to help the sufferer process unpleasant memories and negative feelings related to past trauma or threat. By reprocessing distressing memories and images, the sufferer is given the opportunity to gain some control and power over his or her thoughts.
Typically, once a person with Dissociative Disorder understands and accepts his or her diagnosis, the goal becomes reintegration (or unification) of the various personality states. By helping those with Dissociative Disorder identify and develop healthier strategies to manage stress, sufferers will be able to gradually reduce the amount and frequency of fantasizing, be more likely to remain “present” during stressful situations, improve issues related to memory and cognition, and limit avoidance behaviours.