Dissociative Disorder Symptoms

Dissociative disorders are mental health conditions that cause a person to be disconnected from their consciousness, thoughts, memories, and identity. There are 3 types of dissociative disorders recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5): dissociative identity disorder, dissociative amnesia, and depersonalization/derealization disorder. Specific symptoms occur with each of these types.

This article discusses the symptoms associated with each type of dissociative disorder as well as symptoms that children with dissociative disorders commonly exhibit.

Stressed student

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Common Symptoms

Specific symptoms of dissociative disorders vary with each type. These conditions may be associated with the following symptoms:

  • Memory loss
  • Detachment from reality
  • Flashbacks to traumatic events
  • Inability to cope with stress
  • Depression
  • Altered sense of reality
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or behaviors
  • Emotional numbness
  • "Out of body" experiences

Dissociative Identity Disorder

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is commonly called "multiple personality disorder." The main symptom of DID is switching between multiple identities. Each identity can have its own name, personality, voice, and mannerisms.

These identities are also called alternate personalities, alters, or states of consciousness.

Criteria for diagnosis of DID includes:

  • Presence of 2 or more distinct identities
  • Persistent gaps in memory of personal information, daily activities, and past traumas
  • Significant difficulty in multiple areas of functioning
  • Severe distress
  • Disturbance that is not part of a religious or cultural practice

Switching Between Identities

An individual with DID can switch back and forth between identities quite suddenly. This shift is not in the person's control and is very stressful.

Dissociative Amnesia

Amnesia is memory loss. Dissociative amnesia causes a person to forget important facts or information about themselves and their history. This memory loss often relates to a particular traumatic event, such as abuse, surviving a natural disaster, or being a victim of a crime.

There are 3 basic types of memory loss with dissociative amnesia:

  • Localized: Memory loss about a particular event or period of time
  • Selective: Memory loss about parts of a particular event or timeframe
  • Generalized: Memory loss of a person's entire identity or life history

Localized memory loss occurs most commonly with dissociative amnesia. Generalized memory loss is rare. The memory loss associated with dissociative amnesia may occur suddenly and can last for minutes, hours, or days. In rare cases, memory loss can be long-term.

Dissociative amnesia can affect people of any age, and episodes can occur multiple times throughout a person's lifetime.

Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder

Depersonalization/derealization disorder causes a person to view their life from the "outside," as if they are watching a movie rather than experiencing life themselves. While this condition causes a feeling that the world and people around them are not real, the individual is still in touch with reality.

The average age of onset for depersonalization disorder is 16 years old. This condition affects less than 2 percent of the population.

Symptoms of Dissociative Disorder in Children

Children with dissociative disorders have typically been exposed to long-term abuse (sexual, physical, and/or emotional). Symptoms of dissociative disorders can appear differently in children than adults.

Symptoms can include:

  • Frequent daydreaming
  • Trance-like state ("zoning out")
  • Tantrums
  • Talking to imaginary friends
  • Sudden change in preferences for food, clothing, or leisure activities
  • Change in voice or accent
  • Change in handwriting style
  • Forgetfulness
  • Violent behaviors for "no reason"
  • Anger outbursts

Children with dissociative disorders are sometimes misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or learning disabilities.

When To See A Doctor

If you experience sudden memory loss, feel like you're on the "outside" looking in on your life, or have other potential symptoms of dissociative disorders, talk to your doctor. Early identification and treatment of these disorders can help prevent devastating outcomes. Dissociative symptoms can get worse over time and lead to self-harm or even suicidal behaviors.

When To Call 9-1-1

If you are experiencing urges to hurt yourself or end your life, seek immediate medical attention.

Summary

Dissociative disorders cause memory loss and detachment from ones thoughts, feelings, sensations, and action. There are 3 main types: dissociative identity disorder, dissociative amnesia, and depersonalization/derealization disorder. Specific symptoms occur with each type. These conditions can present differently in children than adults.

A Word From Verywell

Having a dissociative disorder can make you feel like you're not living a full, productive life. Talk to your doctor or a therapist about your symptoms. Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can be an effective treatment for finding ways to manage your symptoms and work on underlying feelings that might be triggering your dissociative episodes. Once you've learned new coping tools, you can significantly improve your quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you know if someone is dissociating?

    During a dissociative episode, a person might have sudden loss of memory, or present with a different personality, including changes to their voice and mannerisms.

  • What triggers dissociation?

    Anything that reminds a person of a past trauma (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) can trigger a dissociative episode.

  • What does dissociation look like?

    A person who is dissociating might appear to be dazed, or day-dreaming. They might suddenly begin to act like a totally different person.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Dissociative disorders.

  2. American Psychiatric Association. What are dissociative disorders?.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Depersonalization/derealization disorder.

  4. Psychology Today. Understanding dissociative identity disorder in children.