In a state of dissociation, the person is unable to connect their separate thoughts, emotions, observations or memories into a meaningful whole. This protects the mind from trauma caused when the person experiences an insurmountable event or lives in an intolerable situation.
Dissociative disorder involves a breakdown of the mind, whereupon one half of the mind carries the traumatic memory at an emotional level while the other half tries to lead a normal everyday life and ignore the memories. A stimulus related to the trauma or discussing events related to the trauma can then trigger dissociation to protect the person from the memory.
Dissociative disorder is estimated to be as common as depression. Estimates of its incidence vary between 1.4% and 10%. The disorder is more commonly diagnosed in women, but it is possible that the disorder is equally common, although less efficiently diagnosed, in men.
Symptoms of dissociative disorder
Trauma can manifest itself as various symptoms physically, psychologically, emotionally and socially. Dissociative symptoms include memory loss (amnesia), feeling unreal and alien (depersonalisation), experiencing familiar people or the surroundings as unfamiliar or strange (derealisation), losing the sense of time and place, distortion of observations and, sometimes, visual and auditory hallucinations.
Dissociation may sometimes manifest itself as physical symptoms, such as spasms, tics, loss of one’s voice or changes in speech, numbness, aches and pains, blindness or other sensory disruptions or loss of consciousness.
Due to the variety of symptoms, the disorder is often confused with other mental health disorders. Simply focusing on the symptoms may mean that the trauma remains unrecognised.
Treating dissociative disorder
In the treatment of dissociative disorder, the goal is to process the traumatic memories gradually so that the person could finally face them, learn to identify the emotions arising from them and control them. Psychotherapy or trauma therapy can help with this.
Making insurmountable experiences part of the story of your life is a long process. It is important to find a professional that makes you feel understood and heard.
People experiencing dissociative symptoms should seek medical attention to exclude the possibility of any somatic illnesses.
The person can also independently work on facing their traumatic memories by means of relaxation or discussion, for example. Psychoeducation, in other words increasing your knowledge and understanding of your situation, usually helps as well.
The suitable treatments always depend on the person and whether they are seeking help for memory loss, depression or distrust towards other people, for example.
Learn more about where to seek help for your mental health
Read more about the Finnish Central Association for Mental Health