Dissociative Identity Disorder: How It (Really) Works

In movies and novels, people with “multiple personalities” are often painted as psychopaths or serial killers. In the real world, dissociative identity disorder is a serious psychological affliction, making the sufferer’s life difficult. It mostly roots in traumatic experiences, where people try to distance themselves from the atrocities that happen, resulting in the disconnection between memories, thoughts, and feelings.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is more than just having “multiple personalities.” This guide will elaborate on the details about this condition, including the symptoms and common treatments.

What is Dissociative Identity Disorder?

DID, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, is a condition where an individual develops two or more distinct personalities. When one personality comes up, memory gap appears, making it difficult for the individual to remember what he or she did as the “other personality.”

According to DSM-5, people with dissociative identity disorder are unable to recall personal information distinctive to a certain personality. Other conditions may accompany DID, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.

Symptoms of Dissociative Identity Disorder

When a person develops DID, he or she may create a new name and behavioral sets that match the “other personality.” However, DID symptoms are more than just a quirky identity switch. Common dissociative identity disorder symptoms include:

  • Memory loss

When switching between one extreme personality to other, a person may experience memory loss. He or she may be unable to recall personal details or experiences between the switch.

  • Anxiety and mood swings

Inability to recall personal memories can lead to anxiety and mood swings, especially when this condition is confronted by other people.

  • Flashback and altered consciousness

Memory gaps and mood swings may create flashback, which does not give full information to the brain, leading to frustrations. This constant switch and memory gap can also alter consciousness, making it difficult for the person to get a strong sense of stability.

  • Destructive behavior and self-harm

Depending on the personality type, a person may develop destructive behavior, something that is usually repressed. Frustration from the memory gap, anxiety, and mood swings can also lead to self-harm. Many also develop suicidal thoughts.

In many cases, people with DID often abuse drugs and alcohol. They may also act aggressively, withdraw themselves from social life, or perform poorly at school and workplace.

Causes of Dissociative Identity Disorder

Researchers are still debating the true causes of dissociative identity disorder. However, it is strongly related to trauma. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 90 percent of recorded DID cases rooted in childhood trauma, abuses, and large-scale traumatic events such as war. The multiple personalities occur as an effort to detach self from the trauma, as a form of defense mechanism when facing a stressful situation.

Researchers found that post-traumatic stress disorder often develops into DID in children. This is because children have more active imaginations than most adults, which allow them to develop multiple personalities with clear, distinctive features. When the traumatic situation passes, children can still revert back to their most comfortable personalities or refuse to get out of them.

In abuse cases, such as neglect and sexual abuse, weak social support can lead to DID. Abused people who cannot get away often develop detachment, which can lead to DID.

Therapies for Dissociative Identity Disorder

Diagnosing DID is difficult because there is no exact agreement for diagnosis standard among psychiatrists and psychologists. DID symptoms often overlap with schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and autism, which can make diagnosing difficult. Individuals who experience symptoms must undergo complete screening, including testing, interview, and history checking.

Because there are no exact therapies for DID, psychologists and psychiatrists rely on several methods at once, depending on the individual. Popular therapies for dissociative identity disorder include:

  • Cognitive therapy

Cognitive therapy is a short-term, practical program, focusing on fixing the client’s distorted way of thinking. The goal is to help him/her to think and behave in ways that are more relevant today, not based on their past trauma.

  • Dialectical behavior therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy is popular to treat depression, borderline personality disorder, and PTSD. It teaches the client important therapeutic skills in emotional regulation, mindfulness, interpersonal relationship, and distress tolerance (the ability to handle distressing situations).

  • Phase-oriented therapy

Created by the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, phase-oriented therapy teaches clients to confront their root problems. Clients will learn how to feel safe, dealing with problems in healthy ways, forming personal relationships, and experiencing a better daily life. The therapy also addresses problems like self-harm and substance abuse.

A client may get medication to treat specific symptoms. For example, if the DID occurs with depression bouts, a psychiatrist may prescribe an antidepressant. The client’s support system, such as parents and family members, will also get guidance to support the client and make him/her feel safe to live a normal life.


Dissociative identity disorder is unlike what pop culture portrays. It is harmful, crippling, and more dangerous for the sufferer than other people. While the cause is still unclear, it mostly roots in trauma. Holistic approach in therapy is the best way to help DID sufferers to live a normal life.

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