Occasionally everyone has minor problems integrating their memories, perceptions, identity, and consciousness. For example, people may drive somewhere and then realize that they do not remember the drive. They may not remember it because they are absorbed—with personal concerns, a program on the radio, or a conversation with a passenger—or are just daydreaming. Such problems, referred to as normal dissociation, typically do not disrupt everyday activities.
In contrast, people with a dissociative disorder may totally forget activities that occurred over minutes, hours, or sometimes much longer. They may sense they are missing a period of time. In addition, they may feel detached (dissociated) from themselves—that is, from their memories, perceptions, identity, thoughts, emotions, body, and behavior. Or they may feel detached from the world around them. Thus, their sense of identity, memory, and/or consciousness is fragmented.
Dissociative disorders involve the following:
Feeling detached from self and/or the surroundings (depersonalization/derealization disorder Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder Depersonalization/derealization disorder involves a persistent or recurring feeling of being detached from one’s body or mental processes, like an outside observer of one's life (depersonalization)... read more )
Being unable to recall important personal information, usually related to trauma or stress (dissociative amnesia Dissociative Amnesia Dissociative amnesia is amnesia (memory loss) caused by trauma or stress, resulting in an inability to recall important personal information. People have gaps in their memory, which may span... read more )
Having a fragmented sense of identity and memory (dissociative identity disorder Dissociative Identity Disorder In dissociative identity disorder, formerly called multiple personality disorder, two or more identities alternate being in control within the same person. Also, the person cannot recall information... read more )
Dissociative disorders are usually triggered by overwhelming stress or trauma. For example, people may have been abused or mistreated during childhood. They may have experienced or witnessed traumatic events, such as accidents or disasters. Or they may experience inner conflict so intolerable that their mind is forced to separate incompatible or unacceptable information and feelings from conscious thought.
Dissociative disorders are related to trauma and stress-related disorders Overview of Trauma- and Stress-Related Disorders Trauma- and stress-related disorders result from exposure to a traumatic or stressful event. Specific disorders include acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. These disorders... read more (acute stress disorder Acute Stress Disorder Acute stress disorder is an intense, unpleasant, and dysfunctional reaction beginning shortly after an overwhelming traumatic event and lasting less than a month. If symptoms persist longer... read more and posttraumatic stress disorder). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) involves intense, unpleasant, and dysfunctional reactions beginning after an overwhelming traumatic event. Events that threaten death or serious injury can... read more People with stress-related disorders may have dissociative symptoms, such as amnesia, flashbacks, numbing, and depersonalization/derealization.
Recent research in animals and humans has begun to show that certain underlying brain structures and functions appear to be associated with dissociative disorders. Scientists do not yet understand how these abnormalities cause dissociative disorders or how this knowledge could guide treatment, but they appear to be promising leads that would benefit from further research.