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How Trauma Can Lead to Dissociative Disorders

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Updated January 25, 2009

There is a definite link between dissociative disorders and PTSD. This is because they do overlap to some extent. For example, painful, traumatic events can cause tremendous emotional and mental disruption in a person's life. As a result -- along with developing post traumatic stress disorder or other psychiatric disorders -- a person may develop something called a "dissociative disorder" as a way of coping with the trauma. The trauma itself may be too difficult to confront or cope with, and therefore, the person may slip into a dissociative state in order to escape. In this sense, dissociation may be adaptive; however, in the long-term, it can further disrupt a person's life.

What Is Dissociation?

There are several types of dissociative disorders, all of which cause a change in consciousness, memory, identity, or how one views his or her surroundings. This change can come on abruptly or slowly, and it may not happen all the time.

The DSM-IV includes 5 types of dissociative disorders:

  • Dissociative Amnesia: In dissociative amnesia, a person has one or more experiences of being unable to remember or recall important information about himself. This difficulty in remembering information goes beyond simple forgetfulness. The information that the person cannot recall is usually about some kind of traumatic or stressful event.

  • Dissociative Fugue: Someone with this disorder will suddenly forget about his past and unexpectedly travel away from home. The person may also experience some confusion about his identity or even assume a completely new identity.

  • Dissociative Identity Disorder: This disorder used to be called, "Multiple Personality Disorder." A person with dissociative identity disorder will have two or more separate identities that each have their own way of thinking and relating to the world. To have this disorder, a minimum of two of these identities must also take control over the person's behavior again and again. Finally, the person with dissociative identity disorder may also have difficulty remembering personal information that, like dissociative amnesia, goes beyond simple forgetfulness.

  • Depersonalization Disorder: In depersonalization disorder, a person feels "detached from" their thoughts or body. For example, they may feel as though they are floating outside their body, looking at people through a window, or in a dream. Despite these experiences though, the person still stays in touch with reality.

  • Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified: This term is used by the DSM-IV to describe a dissociative disorder where the main feature is still some kind of dissociative experience, but criteria for other dissociative disorders are not present.

Who Has Dissociative Disorders?

Dissociative disorders have been found to be pretty common among people with other disorders. For example, some studies have found that over 10% of people with psychiatric disorders in treatment have had some kind of dissociative disorder.

In addition, people who have experienced abuse and/or neglect in childhood may be particularly at risk for developing a dissociative disorder. One study found that 46% of people with a dissociative disorder experienced physical abuse in childhood, and 33% indicated that they had been sexually abused as a child.

PTSD and Dissociation

People with PTSD also may be more likely to have a dissociative disorder. For example, a study of 628 women from the general community found that, of those with with a dissociative disorder (the most common of which was dissociative disorder not otherwise specified, followed by dissociative amnesia), 7% also had a PTSD diagnosis.

The Link Between Trauma and Dissociation

Therefore, if you have experienced a traumatic event and also experience dissociation, it is important to seek out help. Treatment may assist you in learning how to safely confront and cope with your traumatic experience. The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) provides a wealth of information on the connection between trauma and dissociation, as well as provides links to therapists who treat trauma and dissociation.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Ross, C.A., Anderson, G., Fleisher, W.P., & Norton, G.R. (1991). The frequency of multiple personality disorder among psychiatric inpatients. American Journal of Psychiatry, 148, 1717-1720.

Sar, V., Akyuz, G., Dogan, O. (2007). Prevalence of dissociative disorders among women in the general population. Psychiatry Research, 149, 169-176.

Sar, V., Kundakci, T., Kiziltan, E., Bakim, B., & Bozkurt, O. (2000). Differentiating dissociative disorders from other diagnostic groups through somatoform dissociation in Turkey. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 1, 67-80.

Sar, V., Kundacki, T., Kiziltan, E., Yargic, L.I., Tutkun, H., Bakim, B., Ayinder, O., Ozpulat, T., Keser, V., & Ozdemir, O. (2003). Axis I dissociative disorder comorbidity of borderline personality disorder among psychiatric outpatients. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 4, 119-136.

Sar, V., Tutkun, H., Alyanak, B., Bakim, B., & Baral, I. (2000). Frequency of dissociative disorders among psychiatric outpatients in Turkey. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 41, 216-222.

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