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Evidence-Based Reviews

Dissociative disorders unclear? Think ‘rainbows from pain blows’

Visual metaphor answers the question, “What’s ‘dissociated’ in dissociative disorders?”

Vol. 7, No. 5 / May 2008

Mr. D, age 45, presents to his primary care physician with panic attacks, nausea, shortness of breath, nightmares, and dizziness 6 months after being assaulted and robbed at an ATM. Following a routine medical workup, the physician diagnoses posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and refers Mr. D for exposure and response prevention therapy.

During graded exposure sessions, Mr. D’s eyes sometimes glaze over and he seems to “float away” from the discussion. When the therapist asks about these symptoms, Mr. D reports having had them as long as he can remember. In school, he says, teachers thought he was a slow learner, a daydreamer, or had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. From what he can recall of his childhood, he describes a history of trauma and neglect with a violent, drug-abusing father and absent mother.

Patients with a history of early abuse or neglect are at risk for dissociative phenomena and other trauma-related psychiatric disorders.1 The heterogeneous dissociative disorders are often hidden and unrecognized2 —as in Mr. D’s case—or present with unfamiliar or atypical symptoms. Understanding and identifying dissociative symptoms is important because:

  • Dissociative symptoms worsen prognosis, whether patients have conversion disorders1 or psychogenic seizures3 or are in psychotherapy.4
  • Dissociative states may impair memory encoding5 and decrease patients’ ability to remember therapeutic information.
  • Symptoms (such as hearing voices in multiple personality disorder) can be confused with those of disorders with different treatment strategies (such as psychotic disorders).6
  • Peritraumatic dissociation may be a risk factor for PTSD.7

This article presents a practical model for understanding dissociation, reviews clinical characteristics of this family of symptoms, and offers suggestions for assessing and treating patients with dissociative disorders.

Coming together, falling apart

Since Pierre Janet’s first reports on dissociative disorders, a number of theories and models of dissociation have been proposed,8 including empirically based, taxonomic models that address DSM-IV-TR categories (Table 1). The model I propose—which attaches a visual metaphor to dissociative phenomena—answers the question, “What is ‘dissociated’ in dissociation disorders?”

Table 1

DSM-IV-TR classification of dissociative disorders



Dissociative amnesia

A reversible loss of memory, typically preceded by a stressor

Dissociative fugue

Loss of memory and identity, along with travel away from home

Dissociative identity disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder)

Presence of different identity states, often with lack of connection between them; current models highlight the presence of recurrent dissociative intrusions into many aspects of executive function and self

Depersonalization disorder

Detachment from oneself as a present, feeling person (depersonalization) and the world (derealization)

Dissociative identity disorder NOS

Functionally disturbing dissociative symptoms that do not fit into any of the above

NOS: not otherwise specified

Source: Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 4th ed, text rev. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2000

5 components of consciousness. Just as separable wavelengths compose a beam of white light, dissociable “colors” or components of subjective experience constitute a normal state of consciousness. Five implicit components of normal consciousness—present in various degrees, at different times—are seamlessly integrated and associated in real time.

One paired component is a detached “observer” and a more embodied, feeling “experiencer.” The observer is a perspective that begets metacognition (thinking about one’s inner world) and self-observation; it resides in the same body as soma-based “feelings” that unconsciously contribute to the sense of “being present” with oneself and the world in the moment.9

A second component is voluntary access to one’s autobiographical memories (memories about the self in time), which are constantly “updated” and integrated with current experiences. This component allows one to distinguish between remembered (past) experiences and “firsthand” (present) experience.

Three other components of normal consciousness are:

  • a sense of agency and voluntary control over one’s mental contents, mental activity, and bodily movements
  • an ongoing connection with one’s body and mind and an understanding of where sensations and images come from
  • a sense of sequential experience, with relatively smooth transitions (from self at work to self at home, self a week ago to self today, etc) that have a singular referent (an identity).

Pathologic dissociation occurs when a prism of distress disperses one of these component “wavelengths” from the main “beam” of consciousness. For example:

  • separation of the “observer” and “experiencer” occurs in depersonalization disorder
  • reversible loss of ability to access memories characterizes dissociative amnesia
  • disconnection between sequential experiences is a part of dissociative identity disorder.

This modular perspective of dissociative disorders parallels a neurophysiologic perspective of mental states as arising from the synchronized integration of the activity of separate, functionally specialized brain regions.10 Functional neuroimaging of dissociation supports an understanding of these symptoms as “disconnection syndromes” (Box).


Dissociation’s neurobiology: Evidence of brain ‘disconnections’

From a neurophysiologic perspective, mental states may be viewed as arising from synchronized integration of the activity of functionally specialized brain regions. Functional neuroimaging of dissociation supports an understanding of these symptoms as ‘disconnection syndromes.’

Functional neuroimaging. Different ‘identities’—sometimes called a traumatic personality state and neutral personality state—demonstrate different patterns of cerebral blood flow, subjective reports, and peripheral physiologic parameters (blood pressure, heart rate).a

Functional imaging of traumatic dissociation shows active suppression of limbic regions (amygdala) and increased activity in dorsolateral prefrontal areas.b Similarly, neuroimaging of depersonalization disorder show increased neural activity in prefrontal regions associated with affect regulation and decreased activity in emotion-related areas.c,d

Speed. Dissociative responses occur extremely rapidly. Using EEG, which allows finer temporal resolution than functional imaging studies, Kirino et ale showed reversible attenuation of a specific EEG signal within 300 msec during dissociative episodes. This ultra-rapid neural reflex was correlated with allocation of attentional and working memory resources, perhaps with the goal of minimizing memory activation and resurgence of affect-laden memories.e

Hormonal. Stress-related disorders cause perturbations in neurohormonal function. Simeon et alf found a distinct pattern of stress-induced HPA axis dysregulation in dissociative patients compared with PTSD patients and healthy controls. Similar results were seen in patients with borderline personality disorder and dissociative symptoms.g

Structural imaging. Stress-related neurohormonal perturbations are known to affect critical neural structures, including the hippocampus. Using MRI, Vermetten et alh found significantly decreased amygdala and hippocampal volumes in patients with dissociative identity disorder.

EEG: electroencephalography; HPA: hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal; PTSD: posttraumatic stress disorder

Reference Citations: click here

Causes of dissociative disorders

As with many psychiatric disorders, the etiology of dissociative phenomena is thought to include the individual patient’s temperamental or constitutional predispositions11 as well as a strong contribution of environmental trauma (early abuse, neglect).12

Constitutional predisposition for developing a dissociative disorder may include personality traits such as being easily hypnotized, mental absorption, suggestibility, and a tendency to fantasize.13 These characteristics fueled concerns in the 1990s that therapists may contribute to dissociative identity disorder by “digging” for repressed memories in susceptible patients and creating “pseudomemories” of events that did not happen.14

The issue of repressed traumatic memory and its role in therapy is extremely controversial and contributes to the complexity of psychotherapeutic treatment of dissociation.15

Early trauma. Factors that make it difficult to define the specific role of early trauma in dissociative disorders include:

  • shame and secrecy of early sexual or physical abuse and potential for victims to repress traumatic memories
  • lability of memory, potential for suggestibility, and difficulty with verification.14

Some experts—influenced by attachment theory—view dissociative phenomena as manifestations of an innate, reflexive relational pattern called disorganized attachment.16 Attachment theory notes that:

  • early relationships are one of the primary ways that humans learn to regulate distress
  • early trauma frequently includes pathology in caregiving relationships, including overt role reversal, abuse, and neglect.

Empathic treatment of dissociation, therefore, is based on appreciating the difficulties that arose from an individual’s experience of being alone with overwhelming distress. The relation of dissociation to attachment theory has specific therapeutic implications, including a focus on constructing a safe therapeutic relationship for patients.

Finally, remember that transient dissociative symptoms can be considered normal in high-stress situations. Intensive military training has been found to be associated with a very high incidence (96%) of dissociative symptoms in army recruits.17

Identifying ‘hidden’ phenomena

Dissociative disorders have been called “diseases of hiddenness”18 because:

  • Many of their clinical characteristics— sense of identity, memory, connectedness, somatosensory phenomena—are alterations in subjective phenomena that lack clearly observable symptoms.
  • Patients are often reluctant to seek help or divulge their symptoms to clinicians.
  • When dissociative symptoms are obvious—such as multiple personalities or sudden loss of memories—they may be dismissed or evoke skepticism because of their dramatic presentation.

Screening tools. To identify at-risk patients, consider screening with a validated questionnaire such as the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ),19 particularly for patients with psychiatric comorbidity (Table 2). Using the CTQ—which assesses physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and neglect—is a high-yield procedure, given the role of early trauma in brain development and future mental health.20

For more targeted screening, the self-report Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES)21 is useful for clinical assessment in conjunction with the clinician-administered diagnostic Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV Dissociative Disorder (SCID-D).22

Table 2

With these findings, consider screening for dissociation

Posttraumatic stress disorder

Certain personality disorders (especially borderline personality disorder)

Somatoform disorders (conversion disorders and nonepileptic seizures)

Eating disorders

Substance use disorders

Extensive history of trauma or neglect

Self-harm behavior

Differential diagnosis. Diagnosing dissociative disorders includes ruling out psychopathologies that can present with “look-alike” symptoms (Table 3).

As in Mr. D’s case, dissociative phenomena may attenuate the benefit of post-trauma therapeutic interventions, especially those involving exposure. Therefore:

  • assess post-trauma patients for dissociation before you start treatment
  • make specific alterations in psychotherapy for such patients, as described below.

Educating trauma patients that detachment is a normal response to threat17 can reduce shame about not fighting back.

Table 3

Differential diagnosis: Dissociation ‘look-alikes’

Dissociation symptom

Can be confused with:

Visual or auditory hallucinations, other ‘first-rank’ psychotic symptoms in dissociative identity disorder

Psychotic disorder

‘Blanking out’ (cognitive disruption)

ADHD, seizures

Somatoform (conversion) symptoms

A variety of nonpsychiatric medical problems, including pelvic or abdominal pathology and headaches

Dissociative memory lapses

Learning disability, not paying attention

‘Switching’ between states

Bipolar disorder, rapid cycling

Lack of emotional reaction to traumatic stimuli(numbing response)

Healthy coping

ADHD: attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

Medical causes. Because complex partial seizures can cause dissociative symptoms,23 consider evaluating patients for seizures, head trauma, and structural lesions. Psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES) often occur in conjunction with early trauma, dissociative symptoms, and PTSD.3

Recreational drugs such as ketamine, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (“Ecstasy”), hallucinogens, marijuana, and dextromethorphan also can induce dissociative states. Consider evaluating for use of these substances, some of which may not be detected on a routine drug screen.24

CASE CONTINUED: A tactical shift

Internal distress—such as when remembering painful events—clearly is linked with the appearance of Mr. D’s symptoms. The therapist—recognizing unacknowledged dissociative phenomena—changes Mr. D’s therapeutic strategy from exposure therapy to affect and anxiety regulation, with an explicit focus on attachment security (safety).

The therapist explains to Mr. D that dissociation symptoms are a response to distress, and he can learn more adaptive distress regulation in therapy. The in-session focus shifts to include more direct attention to components of the therapy relationship, including overt disclosure of the therapist’s positive regard and commitment to help the patient and frequent pauses to “check in” that the patient feels present, safe, and understood. With this new focus, Mr. D’s dissociative symptoms resolve and he feels more ready to face and overcome his fear and avoided memories.

Psychotherapy: Putting pieces together

Psychotherapy is the primary treatment, based on understanding dissociative disorders as manifestations of distress-related, traumatic fragmentation of the sense of self, interpersonal relatedness, and capacity for adaptive affect regulation (Table 4).

Depersonalization disorder. Cognitive-behavioral integration has been proposed, based on the idea that detachment from one’s self creates anxiety and reinforces efforts to avoid this internal state and events that trigger it. In an open study of 21 patients with depersonalization disorder, individual cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) reduced avoidance, safety behaviors, and symptom monitoring. Measures of dissociation, depression, anxiety, and general functioning also improved.25

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