Young Adult and Teen Dissociative Disorders

Dissociative disorders such as dissociative amnesia and dissociative identity disorder are an involuntary escape from reality that often occurs due to past trauma. When left untreated, they can have serious consequences for a person’s mental health. Charlie Health’s Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers teens and young adults an opportunity to find healthy ways to process and cope with trauma.

What are dissociative disorders?

Dissociative disorders are mental conditions that involve a disconnect between a person’s thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity. 

Most people will experience temporary depersonalization or derealization at some point during their lives—this could mean daydreaming during class or “getting lost” in a really good book for a few hours. For a much smaller group of people, however, dissociation is linked to a dissociative disorder—most often brought on by ongoing trauma or stress.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) currently lists three types of dissociative disorders:

Dissociative identity disorder

Formerly known as multiple personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder is when a person alternates between multiple identities—often due to traumatic experiences, events, or abuse that occurred during childhood.

People living with dissociative identity disorder suffer from ongoing memory gaps regarding everyday events, personal information, and past trauma. Other symptoms required for an official dissociative identity disorder diagnosis include:

  • Two or more distinct identities, also known as personality states. Each identity is accompanied by changes in behavior, memory, and thinking. This change should be observed by others and sometimes even the individual.
  • Symptoms significantly affect how a person functions at school, work, and in social situations. 

Dissociative amnesia

Dissociative amnesia is when a person is unable to remember important information about themself. This is different from normal forgetfulness, and is usually linked to a specific stressful event. The onset of dissociative amnesia tends to be sudden, and the bouts can last anywhere from minutes to days to months

People with dissociative amnesia disorder can experience different types of amnesia, including localized, selective, continuous, systematized, generalized, and dissociative fugue. The most common type is localized amnesia, which means that a person has a gap in their memory where they cannot recall a specific event or series of events.


Depersonalization-derealization disorder

Depersonalization-derealization disorder occurs when a person feels disconnected from their surroundings (derealization) or detached from their thoughts and feelings (depersonalization). People with the condition understand that their perceptions aren’t real, but the experience can still be distressing and even debilitating.

Sometimes compared to feeling like you're living in a dream, there are specific symptoms for both depersonalization and derealization. Symptoms of depersonalization include: not feeling in control of your speech or movements, emotional or physical numbness, and feeling like an outside observer of your own thoughts, feelings, and body.

  • Symptoms of derealization include
  • Feeling alienated from your surroundings
  • Feeling emotionally disconnected from others
  • Distorted perception of time
  • Distorted perception of surroundings (either blurry and colorless or heightened awareness and clarity)
A teen boy looks at himself in the mirror looking anxious

Signs and symptoms of dissociative disorders

Symptoms vary based on the specific type of dissociative disorder, but some of the most common signs and symptoms include: 

  • Significant memory loss of specific times, events, people, and personal information
  • Detachment from yourself and your emotions
  • Distorted perception of surroundings
  • Loss of self-identity 
  • Significant problems with relationships, work, and other important parts of life
  • Inability to cope with stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Causes and risk factors of dissociative disorders

Dissociative disorders usually develop as a response to trauma—such as long-term physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Experiencing stressful events like war or natural disasters has also been linked to dissociative disorders.

People with a dissociative disorder may also experience other conditions associated with trauma, including anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A young woman sitting at her computer looking concerned

Treatment for dissociative disorders

There are several types of psychotherapy that are used to help people take control of dissociative processes and cope with symptoms. In intensive outpatient (IOP) programs, two of the most commonly used types of therapy are cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a logic-based approach to psychotherapy that was designed to help people grow more aware of their thoughts and feelings. One of the reasons that it is so effective is because it shows people how to recognize and reframe the patterns that prevent them from healing. CBT can also help people to improve their self-confidence, improve their relationships, and manage anxiety and depression.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is another type of talk therapy that teaches people how to understand and regulate their emotions. Through individual therapy, group skills training, and ongoing coaching, DBT imparts the skills to manage uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

For people who want to try something a bit different to treat their dissociative disorders, there’s another form of treatment called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR uses a person’s rapid, rhythmic eye movements to cope with trauma in a safe space. Unlike other trauma-focused treatments, EMDR doesn’t require reliving the trauma or questioning dysfunctional beliefs. Instead, the idea is to have a person recall a distressing event and then redirect their thoughts away from the event’s emotional consequences.

How to handle an emergency

Living with a dissociative identity disorder is a risk factor for self-harm, suicide attempts, and other self-injurious behavior. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please know that help is always available via the following resources:

Help at Charlie Health

If you’re currently struggling with a dissociative disorder such as dissociative amnesia or dissociative identity disorder, consider seeking help. Charlie Health’s team of compassionate mental health professionals are here to listen to your story, understand your needs, and match you with an appropriate treatment plan. Learn more today

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