Dissociative Identity Disorder: Everything You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Washington, DO, MPH
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Dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as “multiple personality disorder,” is a mental health condition wherein an individual feels the presence of two or more identities. Each identity may have its own attitudes, behaviors, and personal preferences. Dissociative identity disorder can be a distressing condition that results in gaps in memory and issues with daily functioning. Someone with dissociative identity disorder will switch between personalities involuntarily. Some people may also feel different within their own body, such as feeling much smaller or more muscular than they physically are.

Dissociative identity disorder is generally associated with traumatic events or abuse in childhood. Around 90% of people with the condition in the United States, Canada, and Europe are survivors of childhood abuse or neglect.

Read on to learn more about dissociative identity disorder, including its symptoms, diagnostic criteria, and treatment options.

What is dissociative identity disorder?

A man is looking in the mirror.
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Dissociative identity disorder is a type of dissociative disorder. Dissociative disorders are generally recognized as an involuntary escape from reality wherein the individual experiences a disconnection between thoughts, actions, and memories.

With this condition, the individual alternates between two or more identities. Each identity can have a unique name as well as its own way of speaking and acting. These personalities typically appear involuntarily, and they may be seen as trying to take over the individual’s head.

Dissociative identity disorder can affect adults, adolescents, and children. It was previously known as “multiple personality disorder.”

Are the multiple personalities different people?

The different personality states, which are sometimes known as “alters” or “parts,” are not separate people. They are different states of the individual’s mind, combining to make up the whole person and their personality.

An individual with dissociative identity disorder is one person. The different personality states make up this one person.

What is not dissociative identity disorder?

Some religions and cultures believe in states of a divided self, such as for meditation or as an experience of possession. This does not relate to dissociative identity disorder.

A child with an imaginary friend is also not typically experiencing this condition. Having an imaginary friend is a positive part of childhood that comes from the freedom of the child’s imagination.

Symptoms of dissociative identity disorder

Symptoms of dissociative identity disorder can be similar to those of other conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), seizure disorder, and substance misuse.

Dissociative identity disorder symptoms can include the following:

  • out-of-body experiences
  • changes in handwriting
  • frequent bouts of memory loss
  • an inability to remember large parts of one’s childhood
  • memories suddenly returning as flashbacks
  • an inability to explain certain events, such as how the person got somewhere
  • episodes of feeling disconnected from one’s own body and thoughts
  • hallucinations
  • self-injury
  • suicide attempts

An individual with dissociative identity disorder may also experience related symptoms, including:

It is a good idea to contact your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.

Diagnosing dissociative identity disorder

Receiving a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder can be difficult. As symptoms of this condition are present in other mental health conditions, a doctor may mistake it for something else. For example, a mental health professional may misdiagnose the symptoms as related to borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.

To reach a diagnosis, a doctor will review a person’s symptoms alongside their personal history. They will also carry out tests to rule out any physical conditions — such as a

head injury, a brain lesion, a tumor, or sleep deprivation — that may be contributing to their symptoms.

The person will then receive a referral to a mental health team. According to some research, they can be in mental health treatment for 5 to 12.5 years before receiving a dissociative identity disorder diagnosis.

The individual needs to meet the following criteria for a doctor to reach a dissociative identity disorder diagnosis:

  • The individual experiences two or more different personality states that have their own thoughts and actions.
  • The individual experiences episodes of amnesia, such as gaps in remembering traumatic events, everyday moments, or personal information.
  • The individual is distressed during or has difficulty experiencing important parts of their life.
  • There is no cultural or religious practice that accounts for the symptoms.
  • The symptoms are not due to substance misuse or another medical condition.

View our mental health and behavior hub here.

Causes of dissociative identity disorder

Dissociative identity disorder typically begins to develop in childhood. It can occur as a result of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

The condition can also occur due to:

  • having a lack of safe or nurturing resources following overwhelming trauma or abuse
  • coping with distress during childhood by using splitting as a survival skill
  • being able to dissociate easily

Is dissociative identity disorder a form of PTSD?

Although dissociative identity disorder is not a form of PTSD, there are links between the two conditions. For example, one survey found that 14.4% of people with PTSD also experienced “high levels of dissociative symptoms.”

Because both

dissociative identity disorder and PTSD occur as a result of exposure to distressing situations and trauma, it is possible that a healthcare professional may misdiagnose dissociative identity disorder as PTSD.

Learn more about PTSD here.

Treating dissociative identity disorder

Without treatment, the symptoms of dissociative identity disorder can persist throughout a person’s lifetime. However, with ongoing treatment, they may learn to manage the condition.

Some examples of treatments for this condition include:

  • Psychotherapy: Individual psychotherapy focuses on bringing together the separate personality states. It can last up to 7 years and include uncovering the different personality states, treating traumatic memories, and working with the integrated personality.
  • Family therapy: Family therapy sessions can help inform family members about dissociative identity disorder. This, in turn, can help those family members support a loved one with the condition.
  • Clinical hypnosis: When used alongside psychotherapy, clinical hypnosis may help unlock repressed memories, control problematic behaviors, and bring together the different personalities.
  • Medications: Although there are no medications that specifically treat dissociative identity disorder, a doctor may prescribe antidepressants or anxiolytics to treat symptoms such as depression and anxiety.

Learn more about psychotherapists here.

Managing dissociative identity disorder

Living with dissociative identity disorder can be distressing, and it may hinder a person’s ability to take part in everyday activities. However, it is possible to take steps to manage the condition.

Steps for managing dissociative identity disorder include:

  • learning more about the condition, including what can cause it and how common it is
  • challenging negative thinking, such as working through self-criticism or blame
  • finding techniques to help with managing stress
  • staying organized and keeping on top of time management, as this can help with memory difficulties
  • creating a plan to help keep you safe in an emergency, such as keeping a list of emergency contact information

Risks of dissociative identity disorder

Someone with dissociative identity disorder may be at risk of self-injury or suicide. According to some research, over 70% of people with dissociative identity disorder may attempt suicide.

If you feel suicidal, or if you feel that a loved one may be at risk of harm, seek medical advice immediately.

Summary

Dissociative identity disorder is a mental health condition wherein a person experiences two or more identities. This usually begins in childhood as a method of coping with severe trauma or abuse.

Symptoms of dissociative identity disorder can include out-of-body experiences, an inability to explain certain events, and difficulty remembering parts of one’s childhood. Frequent bouts of memory loss can be distressing and result in difficulties functioning on a daily basis.

It is possible to treat and manage dissociative identity disorder with psychotherapy. This treatment typically lasts a number of years, and it helps the person uncover different personality states and treat traumatic memories.

Contact a doctor if you experience any symptoms of dissociative identity disorder. They will be able to rule out any physical contributions to the symptoms and refer you to a mental health specialist if necessary.

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Washington, DO, MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 29
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.