Dissociation is a mental process that nearly everyone experiences at some point in their life. It involves disconnecting memories, feelings, thoughts, or sense of self. A mild dissociation that is experienced by most people, including mentally stable and healthy adults, is forgetting a common experience, such as turning off a light in a room. The event is so typical and repetitive that a specific instance of turning a light off may be forgotten easily.

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Signs of a Dissociative Disorder

  • Unable to recall specific information (Amnesia)
  • Unable to account for missing time (Fugue)
  • Experience feelings of detachment from self (Depersonalization)
  • Formation of two or more distinct personalities (Identity Disorder)

Additional Symptoms

However, persistent, frequent, or extended periods of dissociation can be symptoms of a larger mental health problem, such as a dissociative disorder. When a person experiences dissociation, it may look like:

  • Daydreaming, spacing out, or eyes glazed over
  • Acting different, or using a different tone of voice or different gestures
  • Suddenly switching between emotions or reactions to an event, such as appearing frightened and timid, then becoming bombastic and violent

Dissociative Disorders and Their Outward Signs

There are currently five recognized forms of dissociative disorders. These are:

  1. Dissociative Amnesia (Psychogenic Amnesia)

    This involves people being unable to recall specific information about themselves, often due to a traumatic event or intensely stressful situation. This is not caused by physical illness or injury, such as a concussion, and cannot be explained by forgetfulness. The person will be unable to recall specific events or may appear to suddenly “wake up” to their surroundings and not understand how they got there.

  2. Dissociative Fugue

    This type of dissociation involves a lengthy period of dissociative amnesia, and it involves traveling away from the individual’s home, place of work, or school. During dissociative fugue, a person will likely appear normal to others and participate in normal activities like driving, riding on a plane, walking, and more. However, the individual will forget these events, and when the episode is over, will likely not be able to account for missing time, how they acted during that missing time, and where they went.

  3. Depersonalization Disorder

    People experiencing this condition may not show any outward signs of being in a different mental state, but self-report that they frequently experience feelings of detachment from themselves, their identity, and the events around them. They report that they feel as though they are watching their lives like a movie from outside their bodies. This is a common experience among adolescents, and it tends to taper off about age 20.

  4. Dissociative Identity Disorder

    Originally called multiple personality disorder, this condition involves the formation of two or more distinct personalities who “share a body.” Typically, there is a primary personality, with several subordinate personalities who occasionally take over the physical form and express themselves. Personalities may or may not know biographical information about each other, and they can be radically different from the primary individual; for example, one personality may be a large man, but the primary personality and the body is a young, petite woman. The personalities are currently believed to be fragments of a whole sense of identity, which dissociated due to intense, often repeated trauma in early life. This may or may not be observable by loved ones, coworkers, and other people, as personalities may show up to interact with different individuals.

  5. Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified

    This involves consistent or frequent bouts of dissociation from the self or others, which do not meet the criteria for other dissociative disorders.

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Help for Dissociative Disorders

Unless a person is very close to an individual with a dissociative disorder, it is unlikely that they will notice anything wrong or different about the individual. However, people struggling with dissociative disorders experience frequent, emotionally troubling disruptions in their lives, so it is important to get help for these conditions. Clinical dissociation is caused by a traumatic event, such as abuse, or being in a terrible accident or warzone. This experience can lead to other issues as well, which require treatment.