Skip to content

Mental Health Center

Font Size

Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder)

Dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder) is thought to be an effect of severe trauma during early childhood, usually extreme, repetitive physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder?

Most of us have experienced mild dissociation, which is like daydreaming or getting lost in the moment while working on a project. However, dissociative identity disorder is a severe form of dissociation, a mental process which produces a lack of connection in a person's thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity. Dissociative identity disorder is thought to stem from trauma experienced by the person with the disorder. The dissociative aspect is thought to be a coping mechanism -- the person literally dissociates himself from a situation or experience that's too violent, traumatic, or painful to assimilate with his conscious self.

Is Dissociative Identity Disorder Real?

You may wonder if dissociative identity disorder is real. After all, understanding the development of multiple personalities is difficult, even for highly trained experts. The diagnosis itself remains controversial among mental health professionals, with some experts believing that it is really an "offshoot" phenomenon of another psychiatric problem, such as borderline personality disorder, or the product of profound difficulties in coping abilities or stresses related to how people form trusting emotional relationships with others.

Other types of dissociative disorders defined in the DSM-5, the main psychiatry manual used to classify mental illnesses, include dissociative amnesia (with "dissociative fugue" now being regarded as a subtype of dissociative amnesia, rather than its own diagnosis), and depersonalization/derealization disorder.

 

What Are the Symptoms of Dissociative Identity Disorder?

Dissociative identity disorder is characterized by the presence of two or more distinct or split identities or personality states that continually have power over the person's behavior. With dissociative identity disorder, there's also an inability to recall key personal information that is too far-reaching to be explained as mere forgetfulness. With dissociative identity disorder, there are also highly distinct memory variations, which fluctuate with the person's split personality.

The "alters" or different identities have their own age, sex, or race. Each has his or her own postures, gestures, and distinct way of talking. Sometimes the alters are imaginary people; sometimes they are animals. As each personality reveals itself and controls the individuals' behavior and thoughts, it's called "switching." Switching can take seconds to minutes to days. When under hypnosis, the person's different "alters" or identities may be very responsive to the therapist's requests.

Along with the dissociation and multiple or split personalities, people with dissociative disorders may experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Suicidal tendencies
  • Sleep disorders (insomnia, night terrors, and sleep walking)
  • Anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias (flashbacks, reactions to stimuli or "triggers")
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Compulsions and rituals
  • Psychotic-like symptoms (including auditory and visual hallucinations)
  • Eating disorders

Other symptoms of dissociative identity disorder may include headache, amnesia, time loss, trances, and "out of body experiences." Some people with dissociative disorders have a tendency toward self-persecution, self-sabotage, and even violence (both self-inflicted and outwardly directed). As an example, someone with dissociative identity disorder may find themselves doing things they wouldn't normally do, such as speeding, reckless driving, or stealing money from their employer or friend, yet they feel they are being compelled to do it. Some describe this feeling as being a passenger in their body rather than the driver. In other words, they truly believe they have no choice.

Today on WebMD

contemplation
Differences between feeling depressed or feeling blue.
lunar eclipse
Signs of mania and depression.
 
man screaming
Causes, symptoms, and therapies.
woman looking into fridge
When food controls you.
 
Woman standing in grass field barefoot, wind blowi
Article
Plate of half eaten cakes
Article
 
Phobias
Slideshow
mother kissing newborn
Slideshow
 
Woman multitasking
Article
thumbnail_tired_woman_yawning
Article
 
colored pencils
VIDEO
Woman relaxing with a dog
Feature
 

WebMD Special Sections