How to Understand and Treat Dissociative Identity Disorder

The brain copes with trauma by dissociating from painful memories

When trauma happens, especially to a child, it is natural for them to envision it as happening to someone else. This is where dissociation comes in. The brain learns that when there is a negative feeling, thought, or event, it can cope by creating distance. Individuals with DID use this emotional and physical distance to get through traumatic experiences.

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Please note, the information in this post is not a replacement for personal medical advice.
By Lindsey Piper, LISW

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), is a complex mental health condition. It is often caused by severe, repetitive childhood trauma, like physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

Trauma

When trauma happens, especially to a child, it is natural for them to envision it as happening to someone else. This is where dissociation comes in. The brain learns that when there is a negative feeling, thought, or event, it can cope by creating distance. Individuals with DID use this emotional and physical distance to get through traumatic experiences. As a result, DID is both a disorder and a form of resiliency. When an individual pushes their trauma away, they can use that space for normal development. However, the painful memories and feelings are still there, they just live with other parts of the self.

Signs of Dissociative Identity Disorder

Dissociation is a process that creates a disconnect within a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or identity. Everyone dissociates from time to time. Similar to other disorders, DID exists on a spectrum. The lower end might be getting sucked into a daydream. It might also be that you were not aware of certain parts of your commute home from work or school. On the other end, people may feel disconnected from their body entirely. Further, they may feel as though the world around them is not “real”. For those affected by DID, dissociation can feel very severe. An individual may feel like there are different personalities inside of them. Each personality may have their own thoughts and agendas.

Other signs of Dissociative Identity Disorder may include:

  • trance states
  • child voices
  • two or more voices that argue or struggle
  • voices that comment harshly or tell the individual to harm themselves
  • loss of time
  • gaps in memory
  • finding items in one’s belongings that they do not remember purchasing or obtaining

Alters

People with a DID diagnosis experience extremely disconnected parts of self. Most of us know these parts as separate “personalities”, but they are actually called “alters”. Alters take on the burden of negative memories, emotions, and physical sensations that they feel unable to cope with.

Usually, a person with DID has two or more “alters”. Each alter can have it’s own traits, memories, mindsets, gender, age, and preferences. Sometimes a person is aware of their “alters”, but not always. Other people experience amnesia when an “alter” takes over. In some cases, alters are helpful. For example, a shy person may benefit from a more outgoing alter taking over during a job interview. Other alters may be harmful, such as those who engage in self-injury, substance abuse, or risky sexual behavior.

Treatment can be difficult

A person dealing with DID may not be aware of it. As a result, it can be difficult to treat. To add to that, when a family experiences abuse, secrecy is often the response. General memory issues are common with DID, so a person might not remember their abuse at all. If they do remember, family members might try to convince them that it never happened in order to keep it a secret. Despite the challenges, it is not uncommon for those with DID to have successful relationships and jobs. In some cases, people seek mental health treatment for something else, and their diagnosis is discovered at that time. For example, if an external stressor shatters their sense of normal, they might seek therapy for that.

Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder

While it can be difficult, treatment is not impossible. Treatment aims to relieve symptoms, ensure safety, and reintegrate the different parts of self into one well-functioning identity. Further, people can process painful memories related to the trauma and develop effective coping skills.

Treatment options include a wide variety of therapy types. Trauma focused therapies like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) can also be useful. They help relieve symptoms that stem from trauma, like nightmares or flashbacks. It is important to remember that not everyone with Dissociative Identity Disorder is a good candidate for every therapy. Some people may benefit from a therapist with advanced training in trauma and dissociation.

If you would like to learn more about what treatment options might be best for you or a loved one, give us a call. We are happy to help you schedule an appointment. Additionally, if you are interested in our self-guided courses, visit selfhelp.strengthenu.com!

Lindsey Piper, LISW
Lindsey Piper, LISW
Lindsey Piper is a Licensed Independent Social Worker.
Additional Tips
Lindsey Piper, LISW
Lindsey Piper, LISW
Lindsey Piper is a Licensed Independent Social Worker.
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