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What are Dissociative Symptoms?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Dissociative symptoms are emotional and physical experiences people have during dissociative episodes, where they feel disconnected from their personal identities and may split off parts of themselves. A number of mental health conditions are associated with such episodes, including Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and post traumatic stress disorder. People who experience dissociative symptoms have a number of treatment options available through a mental health professional.

The ability to disassociate is an adaptive trait in human beings. People can isolate parts of their identities to cope with traumatic and stressful experiences, as seen in extreme cases like torture, where people sometimes report that they feel like the torture was performed on someone else. The body and brain's ability to disassociate can protect people from events they are unable to cope with. This trait can become maladaptive in some cases, however, as people may disassociate to avoid confronting feelings.

Signs that someone may be experiencing dissociative symptoms include blackouts, confusion, forgetfulness, and depression. Blackouts can be experienced by some people who have DID, when various aspects of their personality move to the “front,” as some patients call it, taking over the handling of situations the patients find stressful or unpleasant. The suppressed aspects of the personality may not remember this period and can be confused about what happened during this time when they reemerge.

Low level forgetfulness is not a dissociative symptom, but if people routinely find themselves forgetting large gaps of time and being unable to understand why, they may be dissociating. Other dissociative symptoms can include a sense of floating above the body or viewing the body through a barrier; the patient can see what is happening, but does not feel connected to what the body is doing. The patient may feel like the body is on automatic pilot, performing functions without full cognitive awareness.

In some cases, dissociative symptoms can impair a patient's functioning. People can experience problems at work or in personal relationships because of dissociative episodes and may be at risk of injury or abuse if their personalities are not fully integrated. Other patients function at a very high level and for some people with DID, the condition is not regarded as an impairment or disability, but simply a normal facet of human diversity. These individuals consider their multiplicity, as it is sometimes called, to be a positive and beneficial character trait for them, and may refuse or resist treatments attempting to integrate their personalities.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon285885 — On Aug 18, 2012

The decisions that you make every single day have the potential to affect you for the rest of your life.

I have suffered (and still do occasionally) from dissociative symptoms. These have been due to an inability to handle a hugely stressful situation that was going on in my life. Dissociative symptoms are impossible to explain. It's almost like you're not completely there. You remember there was this point in your life when you thought rationally, when you could connect with the world, when you could "feel" pain, you could remember easily, and react to events appropriately. Being in a dissociative state is the loneliest feeling that could possibly exist.

Avoid drugs, and be careful who your friends are because like it or not, they will tear you down if they make poor choices and you are striving to making good choices with your life. Live your life trying to have a good name for yourself, but don't try to be someone that you're not and don't try to impress people. Be yourself.

During the ages 18 to 22, you learn cause and effect a great deal, I believe. If you surround yourself with people that you want to be like, you will become like them and you will start to think like them.

I made the mistake of thinking I could change someone who hated his life, had an incredibly poor sense of relating to others, was manipulative, lied, and blamed others for his condition, and was basically hated by a lot of people. I spent years with this person (off and on), and the person that I am today is not who I wanted to be, and it will be a long process of counseling and therapy before I gain a sense of self again.

Please consider what I've said, and I hope that when you reach the last of your years, you won't have significant regrets.

By Moldova — On Mar 06, 2011

@cafe41 - I have heard that too. I also understand that sometimes a person with dissociative fugue will block out certain memories and when they go on a vacation they tend to pick up another personality.

I also want to say that somatization disorder is another psychological condition that causes the patient to have a preoccupation with their health and may experience stress or

Many people look at people with somatoform disorders to be hypochondriacs. They are very aware of their body and think that every bodily function must be impaired because they always feel like they have a disease of some kind.

They are in a constant state of anxiety and they tend to feel physical pain.

By cafe41 — On Mar 05, 2011

Icecream17 - I have heard that when people have traumatic experiences, for example a near death car crash, they have difficulty remembering the details of the crash.

So there must be some truth to what you are saying. I could certainly understand becoming dissociated with your feelings when traumatic things happen because it is a way of coping with life.

Suppressing memories often act as a coping mechanism because the reality is far too painful. The problem is that by suppressing your feelings you will develop other problems like an addiction.

Sometimes people develop addictions to food, alcohol, or drugs as a way of dissociating themselves from the initial trauma.

For example, there have been many cases in which people that were sexually molested as children grow up with a severe weight problem because food became a source for comfort for them.

Now the person has the original problem plus the weight problem to contend with. It is best that if you have suffered from a traumatic experience that you seek therapy right away.

Not only can a psychiatrist help you with the emotional pain but they can also prescribe medication that can block the recurrence of flashbacks which may occur from time to time.

By icecream17 — On Mar 03, 2011

I recently read that people with severe dissociative symptoms may develop multiple personality disorders.

The multiple personalities act as a buffer between the traumatic events in the person’s life and this fictional world.

Often because the events were so painful, these people try to disconnect the feelings by escaping into another personality.

Many people with this condition also develop dissociative amnesia and may even block out their entire childhood because it was so painful.

Often therapists have to resort to hypnosis in order to determine the reason for the pain because many times the patient would have blocked out the memory and be unable to articulate the problem.

These people are also prone to addictions to drugs and alcohol in order escape from their current problems.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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