In-Depth: Understanding Dissociative Disorders
Dissociation is a common defense/reaction to stressful or traumatic situations. Severe isolated traumas or repeated traumas may result in a person developing a dissociative disorder. A dissociative disorder impairs the normal state of awareness and limits or alters one’s sense of identity, memory or consciousness. Once considered rare, recent research indicates that dissociative symptoms are as common as anxiety and depression, and that individuals with dissociative disorders (particularly Dissociative Identity Disorder and Depersonalization Disorder) are frequently misdiagnosed for many years, delaying effective treatment. In fact, persons suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder often seek treatment for a variety of other problems including depression, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, memory lapses, alcohol or drug abuse, temper outbursts, and even hearing voices, or psychotic symptoms. People with dissociation often also seek treatment for a variety of medical problems including headaches, unexplained pains, and memory problems. Many people have symptoms that have gone undetected or untreated simply because they were unable to identify their problem, or were not asked the right questions about their symptoms. Because dissociative symptoms are typically hidden, it is important to see a mental health professional who is familiar with recent advances in the ability to diagnose dissociative disorders through the use of scientifically tested diagnostic tests.
What kind of events or experiences are likely to cause symptoms of dissociation? There are various types of traumas. There are traumas within one’s home, either emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Other types of traumas include natural disasters, such as earthquakes, political traumas such as holocausts, hostage situations, wars, random acts of violence (such as the Oklahoma city bombing and the Columbine shootings), or the grief we feel after the death of a family member or loved one. Dissociation is a universal reaction to overwhelming trauma and recent research with indicates that the manifestations of dissociation are very similar world wide.
Misdiagnosis of People with Dissociative Identity Disorder
Most people with undetected Dissociative Identity Disorder (or the spectrum diagnosis of Dissociative Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified) experience depression and often are treated with antidepressant medications. While antidepressant medications may help some of the feelings of depression, it does not alleviate symptoms of dissociation. Some people suffering from undetected dissociative symptoms are misdiagnosed as having psychotic disorders including schizophrenia and are treated with antipsychotic medication resulting in long term side effects. Some other common diagnosis that people with Dissociative Identity Disorder receive include:
- Bipolar disorder.
Mood swings is a very common experience in people who have a dissociative disorder. If you seek help with a professional who is not familiar with dissociative disorders they may only consider bipolar disorder as the reason for your mood swings, when symptoms of dissociation may be the underlying cause.
- Attention deficit disorder.
People with Dissociative Identity Disorder commonly experience problems with attention and their memory. Treatment with medication for ADHD may help some of the symptoms associated with poor attention, but again will not help all the symptoms associated with underlying dissociation.
- Eating disorders.
People with eating disorders including anorexia, and binging often experience inner feelings of dissociation and may have a coexisting dissociative disorder.
- Alcohol or drug abuse.
People with undetected dissociative disorders frequently self medicate with alcohol or drugs.
- Anxiety disorders.
People with undetected dissociative disorders often experience generalized anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive symptoms. Treating only their anxiety will not help their dissociative symptoms.
Other common clues to a dissociative disorder include the fact that a person seems to experience a lot of different symptoms that come and go, and that they have been in treatment for many years and they still seem to have many of their symptoms.
Some people with undetected dissociative symptoms can function well at work or school. Only close friends or family are aware of the person’s inner struggles or suffering. Some times, a person with undetected dissociation may need to be hospitalized because of feelings of low self esteem, self hatred, self destructive feelings and/or suicidal ideation. The delay in accurate diagnosis results in difficulty maintaining close relationships, working below one’s potential as well as years of unnecessary suffering. This can result in worsening depression and continued mood swings and self destructive behaviors.
- Major depression
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Impulse control disorders
Steinberg, M. (2016). In-Depth: Understanding Dissociative Disorders. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/in-depth-understanding-dissociative-disorders/