A provocative new paper suggest sleep problems can increase the risk for dissociative or identity disorders. Dissociative symptoms and dissociative identity disorder were formerly known as multiple personality disorder.
Dissociation refers to an altered state of consciousness characterized by partial or complete disruption of the normal integration of a person’s normal conscious or psychological functioning. It is most commonly experienced as a subjective perception of one’s consciousness being detached from one’s emotions, body and/or immediate surroundings.
Study co-author Steven Jay Lynn, Ph.D., of Binghamton University, believes that dissociative identity disorder arises from a combination of cues, from therapists and from images of multiple personalities in the media. Research demonstrates that many people with rich fantasy lives may be especially susceptible to such influences.
In the new study, found in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, authors suggest sleep problems may place some people at risk for dissociation.
The finding is in contrast to the popular belief that patients develop multiple personalities to cope with traumatic experiences in their past, such as child sexual abuse.
However, study authors believe that assumption is not supported by scientific evidence. While many people with dissociative disorders do say they were abused as children, this does not prove that abuse caused their condition.
A vulnerable person can be guided by therapists who use hypnosis or ask leading questions, like “Is there another part of you who I haven’t spoken with?” Through that kind of suggestive therapy technique, people might start to think their mood changes, confusion, and impulsive actions happen because they have multiple selves living in the same body — when they began psychotherapy with more run-of-the-mill psychological problems.
Lynn and his colleagues’ research further suggests that sleep problems may be one reason why some people are more vulnerable to dissociation and dissociative disorders.
In one study, Lynn’s colleagues kept 25 healthy volunteers from sleeping for one night and found they had many more dissociative experiences. This could help to explain a connection between trauma and dissociation, as traumatic memories can disturb sleep.
Poor sleep can also impair memory and increase suggestibility, potentially increasing the impact of leading interventions. “We’re not arguing that this is a complete or final explanation,” Lynn says. “We just hope the word will get out and other investigators will start looking at this possibility.”
“We want to educate the many therapists who may be strongly influenced by the traditional model of dissociation not only to think otherwise but to practice otherwise,” Lynn says.
Therapists should “be scrupulous in avoiding suggestive approaches—not only with people who may be particularly vulnerable to those procedures, but with people in general who seek help.”
Also, he cautions, “if your therapist is trying to convince you that you have multiple personalities, you should find a new therapist.”