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Dissociative Disorder Treatment

What Are Dissociative Disorders?

Dissociation is characterized as a form of detachment from reality. Dissociation is like psychosis, but rather than experiencing, sensing, or perceiving things that are not there, dissociation is characterized by the sense that you are living outside of your body and/or mind. Most cases of dissociation develop after trauma, but not all dissociative disorders are trauma related.

Nevertheless, the connection between dissociative disorders and trauma is strong. Current statistics show that up to three-fourths of people experience some kind of dissociation after a traumatic event. In some cases, these experiences can develop into mental health issues.

Watching a loved one dissociate can be terrifying. They might forget crucial details about themselves or their lives, or act like entirely different people. Symptoms can vary immensely in severity – some people become more aloof at first, while others experience serious amnesia or develop multiple personalities.

But dissociative disorders are far from untreatable. The right treatment plan, and a long-term commitment to recovery, can help a person learn to differentiate between reality and their own fiction, and lead a fulfilling life.

What Do Dissociative Disorders Look Like?

Formally, mental health professionals recognize dissociation as a disruption in a person’s:

  • Sense of self or identity
  • Memories and past events
  • Emotions and mood
  • Perception of reality
  • Behavior and personality
  • Motor control
  • Consciousness and self-awareness

In addition to these hallmarks, individuals experiencing a dissociative disorder will often suffer from a unique condition called dissociative fugue, which is a general sense of confusion and short-term memory loss, usually after wandering around or finding themselves in seemingly random location.

From the outside looking in, dissociation can feel like watching a loved one become someone else. The changes can be subtle at first, and not all dissociative disorders start with severe symptoms. Sometimes, the extent of a dissociative disorder includes constant daydreams and powerful intrusive thoughts, or infrequent and brief episodes of a certain “loss of awareness”.

Over time, these symptoms can become worse if left untreated. If your loved one has been acting increasingly strange since experiencing a traumatic event or has been struggling mentally as a result of their ongoing physical or mental health issues, consider talking to them about dissociative feelings and whether or not they relate to certain descriptions of dissociative disorders. Take them to a mental health professional to discuss dissociation, and a potential assessment for a formal diagnosis and treatment plan.

Most cases of a dissociative disorder can be characterized as one of three recognized conditions. These are dissociative identity disorder (DID), dissociative amnesia, and depersonalization/derealization disorder.

Dissociative disorders can co-occur in people with trauma-related depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, certain anxiety disorders, and substance use disorder.

Common Dissociative Disorders

Dissociative disorders are most common in people with a history of trauma, abuse, or neglect. Those assigned female at birth are statistically more likely to develop dissociative disorders, although they can affect people at any age and gender.

Despite their prevalence among people with traumatic experiences, dissociative disorders are currently rare – only an estimated 2 percent of adults are diagnosed with a dissociative disorder.

Dissociative Identity Disorder

Dissociative identity disorder is potentially the most well-known dissociative disorder.

Previously known as multiple personality disorder, and often confused for schizophrenia in popular culture, dissociative identity disorder is characterized by distinct “splits” in personality, wherein one person displays multiple different identities, each with their own thought patterns, emotions, and even skills or talents. Dissociative identity disorder often also includes memory problems and extensive gaps in memory between personalities.

For a person to be diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, they must be “host” to multiple distinct personalities – in most cases, there is the “core” personality (the norm, or usual persona), and the “alters”. There have been recorded cases of people with up to a hundred different personalities, so the number of alters can vary drastically from case to case.

A person with dissociative identity disorder is thoroughly assessed both psychologically and physically to rule out other potential causes, including neurological conditions. If there are no other explanations for a person’s multiple personalities, whether physical or cultural, and their symptoms can be traced to a period of trauma (or a specific event), they may have DID. In addition to multiple distinct personalities, DID often also includes symptoms of:

  • Anxiety or increased alertness
  • Depression or low mood
  • Memory loss
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Delusions or psychosis

Dissociative Amnesia

Dissociative amnesia is characterized by sudden and otherwise unexplained memory loss. Dissociative or traumatic amnesia must have no other plausible physical cause – such as a brain injury during the trauma, recent sickness, medication, or drug use – and the memory loss is often related to the trauma, such as having no memory of what happened, or forgetting most of the details. Dissociative amnesia is often either:

  • Generalized – this is a rare form of dissociative amnesia that affects a person’s entire memory and personality. This can result in a loss of identity.
  • Selective – detail-oriented loss of memory, where it becomes difficult to recount the specifics of an event.
  • Localized – loss of a specific event, from top to bottom. This is the most common form of dissociative amnesia.

Dissociative Amnesia

Depersonalization/derealization disorder is a trauma-related mental health condition involving multiple episodes of either depersonalization or derealization.

  • Depersonalization is characterized by feeling detached from one’s mind and body. A person who is experiencing a depersonalization episode might feel like they have suddenly become a passenger in their own life and are only viewing reality through the lens of someone they don’t control.
  • Derealization is characterized by feeling like everything else is surreal, and fake. In a derealization episode, even people around you can feel strange.

The main difference between symptoms of psychosis and symptoms of derealization or depersonalization is awareness. People experiencing depersonalization or derealization understand that something is off, or that they’re going through an episode. While they might not know what is going on, they will understand that it isn’t normal.

Most people with depersonalization/derealization disorder experience their first episode in childhood, or as teens. Few people experience their first episode after age 20.

How Are Dissociative Disorders Treated at the Arrow House?

At the Arrow House, we focus on creating a rehabilitative environment for young teens to successfully overcome traumatic experiences, and the dissociative symptoms that develop as a result.

Our research-based treatment plans involve a strong focus on talk therapy and specific one-on-one psychotherapeutic methods, such as dialectical behavior therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, EMDR, and psychoeducation.

Get in touch with us to find out how our residential programs can help your teen improve their daily functioning and overcome dissociative distress.