The human mind has an amazing capacity to process thoughts and memories, often in ways that seek to protect people from trauma or frightening events that may have happened to them in the past. Researchers call this phenomenon “dissociation,” and there is a whole family of mental illnesses that are officially designated dissociative disorders. These conditions can produce relatively minor symptoms or have the potential of causing major personality changes and producing bizarre behaviors in some individuals. As with all mental illnesses, the effects can vary greatly from person to person. Let’s see if we can get a handle on the basics of dissociative disorders so that we can better understand how to treat them and successfully bring victims back to a point where they can live balanced lives free from the effects of mental illness.
What Are Dissociative Disorders?
Dissociative disorders compose a group of mental illnesses whereby patients are able to separate or pigeon hole certain thoughts and memories, and effectively set them apart from the rest of their reality. Individuals who suffer from these conditions do not consciously choose to do this. It is an involuntary survival mechanism that has developed to protect the person from traumatic events in the past, and it often involves a period of memory loss or amnesia as it is technically known. These disorders typically begin in childhood, and are usually the result of repeated or chronic abusive situations while a child is growing up. In rare cases adults may experience the initial onset of a dissociative disorder, but most form in childhood and are progressive in nature, continuing to develop as the children grow into adults.
Before we get too far into this discussion, I think it would be helpful to define exactly what is meant by dissociation. In some cases, dissociation is a healthy response to life that everyone experiences from time to time, even persons who have never experienced dissociative disorders or any other mental illness. A good example of normal dissociation is the escape from reality one can experience when enjoying a movie or getting lost in a good book. Another type of dissociation is the feelings one gets while dreaming or attempting to wake up from a dream. The lines between reality and fantasy become unclear, and dreams can temporarily transport us to another realm of reality. Other people may have experienced dissociation during a minor automobile accident, or other moderately traumatic experience. Scientists tell us that even something as common as driving long distances and unconsciously taking turn offs or exits on a familiar route while the mind is concentrating on other things is a form of dissociation.
The above examples are considered “normal” behaviors. When does dissociation become abnormal and cross the line into mental illness? It is not always easy to distinguish between healthy dissociative reactions and unhealthy ones, but a general rule is that people with dissociative disorders or other mental illnesses linked with dissociative features have no control over their dissociative episodes, and these events also produce behaviors and consequences that may prove harmful to the individual or others.
It is very difficult to state how common these disorders are. Diagnosis is not an exact science, especially when it comes to mental illness, and these conditions were not officially identified until about 1980. Thus, there is not a very large body of research to draw on regarding the incidence of dissociative disorders. However, studies do indicate that treatment for those with dissociative disorders is quite promising using drug-free procedures such as psychotherapy and other forms of counseling and behavior modification. It is estimated by the mental health profession that approximately 7% of Americans will suffer from an associative disorder during their lifetimes, but this is really just shooting in the dark. The mental health field is typically one of the worst abusers when it comes to developing names and labels for any number of “conditions,” and often throwing medications at patients hoping that something will work. Meanwhile, patient’s brain chemistries are altered forever, and they ultimately pay the price. One positive thing that can be said for dissociative disorders is that they are primarily treated with therapy rather than drugs.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Dissociative Disorders?
As with most illnesses, signs vary from person to person and situation to situation. This is particularly true in the mental illness arena. However, there are some symptoms that can be considered common. These include:
- Amnesia: This is characterized by memory loss regarding events, people, and periods of time. These amnesiatic episodes can vary from a minute or less to several months and longer.
- Depersonalization: This term basically means to be detached from yourself, in the sense that you are able to objectively view yourself as if outside of your body and sense of reality.
- Derealization: This involves viewing the world around you in a distorted or unrealistic manner
- Loss of identity: Involves an unclear understanding of who you are and how you relate to the world around you.
- Coexisting mental illnesses: Most individuals who are diagnosed with dissociative disorders also struggle with pre-existing mental illnesses such as depression and others. This is one of the reasons it is so difficult to diagnose dissociative disorders-due to the many extenuating circumstances involving other abnormal thoughts and behaviors patients may have.
What Conditions Compose the “Dissociative Disorders?”
There are four distinct forms of mental illness that are classified as dissociative disorders. They share some characteristics in common, but they all have distinctive features as well:
- Dissociative Amnesia: In a nut shell, this is simply memory loss that is significant enough to disrupt normal every day living, and also has no known physical explanation, such as a head injury or other trauma. This type of amnesia may also be described as memories that are missing, not really lost, because they were essentially never there. This most often includes gaps in childhood memories.
- Dissociative identity disorder: Sometimes called multiple personality disorder, this is the most dramatic and distinctive form of dissociative disorder, and it is also extremely rare. It is characterized by two or more distinctive identities or personalities in one individual. Persons diagnosed with this disorder may or may not be aware of the different personalities, but one of the goals of treatment is to unify the person by integrating all the identities back into one whole person. The different personas may be very distinct, even differing in gender. Each one may have a different voice, and exhibit unique physical characteristics and body language as well. For example, in some cases, certain personalities will require glasses or contact lenses in order to see properly, when others will not. In the majority of documented cases, individuals with dissociative identity disorder are also diagnosed with dissociative amnesia.
- Dissociative fugue: This disorder exhibits dissociative behaviors that often result in patients taking physical leave of their geographic locations with no memory of what happens while they are gone. Cases have been reported whereby an individual experiences “fugue episodes” that may last several hours or in rare cases, several months. When the fugue ends, many patients report intense feelings of confusion and anger, and they wonder how they ended up away from home and what happened during the episode.
- Depersonalization disorder: This condition is often described as feeling outside of yourself. Some patients say it is like watching a movie of their life, or watching their existence from a distance as an outside observer. Sometimes depersonalization disorder also results in distortion of your own body and the world around you, with somewhat of a dreamlike quality. This can be a one time experience that only lasts a few minutes, or it may be a chronic feature that comes and goes over the years.
What Causes Dissociative Disorders?
The most common triggers for dissociative disorders are thought to be events in a person’s life that involved repeated and traumatic abuse, mainly physical and /or sexual abuse. Ritual abuse, such as in Satanic worship, has also been associated with some cases of dissociative disorders. In order to survive such severe abuse, people with these conditions have placed such memories in a separated compartment(s), thus isolating them from the rest of their reality. But they never really go away. Often times dissociative disorders surface and the symptoms flare up when these memories “leak” back into the forefront, and cause emotional trauma. It is at this point, psychiatrists say, that a victim has the choice, with supportive help, to either re-bury the memories, or seek to bring them out and deal with them in order to get healing and freedom from the illness. This kind of “talk therapy” is the most successful way to deal with dissociative disorders.
What About Treatment for Dissociative Disorders?
Even conventional medicine agrees that psychotherapy or other forms of cognitive therapy are the best way to help persons with dissociative disorders. This is an amazing admission, considering the amount of medications that are prescribed for mental health “treatment.” Medications, such as anti-depressants and others, are sometimes recommended to dissociative disorder patients, but there are none that are designed for treating these disorders or that have any track record of helping patients. Be very wary of any health care provider that prescribes such drugs for these disorders. There is no precedence for the use of them under these circumstances, but that does not stop them from being prescribed.
Instead of getting numbed out on drugs, the best thing is to find a professional to counsel with that is not pill-happy, but sees the value of helping patients work through the issues so that true healing can come forth. This may be a long a difficult process in many cases, but it is the only route that will truly give any hope for resolving the condition.
In addition to therapy, do not under estimate the importance of diet and exercise when it comes to mental health. Your brain cannot operate properly or efficiently with out a consistent supply of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that can best be supplied through a wholesome diet. Exercise is also critical to both physical and mental health. Get those endorphins pumping through your system, as they are a gift from your creator to help keep your feelings and emotions in balance by producing a sense of well being. Mental illness is not easy to recover from, but it can be done best through incorporating natural means and avoiding synthetic drugs that were never intended to be part of our body chemistry to begin with.