Dissociation is a mental process, which produces a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity. During the period of time when a person is dissociating, certain information is not associated with other information as it normally would be.
For example, during a traumatic experience, a person may dissociate the memory of the place and circumstances of the trauma from his ongoing memory, resulting in a temporary mental escape from the fear and pain of the trauma and, in some cases, a memory gap surrounding the experience. Because this process can produce changes in memory, people who frequently dissociate often find their senses of personal history and identity are affected.
Most clinicians believe that dissociation exists on a continuum of severity. This continuum reflects a wide range of experiences and/or symptoms. At one end are mild dissociative experiences common to most people, such as daydreaming, highway hypnosis, or “getting lost” in a book or movie, all of which involve “losing touch” with conscious awareness of one’s immediate surroundings. At the other extreme is complex, chronic dissociation, such as in cases of Dissociative Disorders, which may result in serious impairment or inability to function. Some people with Dissociative Disorders can hold highly responsible jobs, contributing to society in a variety of professions, the arts, and public service — appearing to function normally to coworkers, neighbors, and others with whom they interact daily.
There is a great deal of overlap of symptoms and experiences among the various Dissociative Disorders, including dissociative identity disorder (DID). Individuals should seek help from qualified mental health providers to answer questions about their own particular circumstances and diagnoses.
Do People Actually Have Multiple Personalities?
Yes, and no. One of the reasons for the decision by the psychiatric community to change the disorder’s name from Multiple Personality Disorder to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is that “multiple personalities” is somewhat of a misleading term. A person diagnosed with DID feels as if she has within her two or more entities, or personality states, each with its own independent way of relating, perceiving, thinking, and remembering about herself and her life. If two or more of these entities take control of the person’s behavior at a given time, a diagnosis of DID can be made.
These entities previously were often called “personalities,” even though the term did not accurately reflect the common definition of the word as the total aspect of our psychological makeup. Other terms often used by therapists and survivors to describe these entities are: “alternate personalities,” “alters,” “parts,” “states of consciousness,” “ego states,” and “identities.” It is important to keep in mind that although these alternate states may appear to be very different, they are all manifestations of a single person.