Structural Dissociation and Dissociative Identity Disorder

As you may have noticed, there are dozens of theories out there about dissociation and dissociative identity disorder. Obviously, since dissociation is part of DID, it is necessary to cover these theories the best we can.


For this article, we shall investigate structural dissociation theory and all its ramifications. We will not decide or discuss whether this theory answers all our questions, nor will we delve too much into the controversy surrounding it.


What is Dissociation?




Dissociation is a natural defense against traumatic or tedious situations, and as such, all humans dissociate. Some common forms of dissociation are road hypnosis and being so enthralled with something that you lose all awareness of time.


Only when dissociation becomes a problem one needs to consider seeking help. Although all people with dissociative identity disorder experience dissociation, many of us do not understand what the definition of it is. The Oxford Dictionary defines dissociation as follows:


“separation of some aspects of mental functioning from conscious awareness, leading to a degree of mental dysfunction or mental conditions including dissociative identity disorder.”


In clinical dissociation, the person may become disoriented, lose time, or not remember events as they happened. No theory of the stages of dissociation is agreed upon as accurate, but below is one model you might find in your research on the topic of dissociative identity disorder.


The Five Stages of Dissociation




Dissociation, as experienced by those who have dissociative identity disorder, is fluid. The person’s mind and body have learned to change from one member in their system to another.


Basically, there are five types of dissociation, the kind that most people experience due to the severe life-changing dissociation experienced by those who have DID, BPD, and a few other severe mental conditions.


  1. Mild detachment or daydreaming. This type of dissociation is often described as road hypnosis or daydreaming because you are bored.


  1. Moderate dissociation. When you zone out or find yourself spacing out.


  1. Severe detachment. This dissociation includes such phenomena as depersonalization or being disconnected from the physical self.


  1. Identity confusion. This type of dissociation is when you do not recognize yourself or the world around you.


  1. Severe dissociation. This is where you have amnesia and have alternate identities, like in dissociative identity disorder.


This is not an all-inclusive list, as people experience more than one type of dissociation, but not all of them.


What is Structural Dissociation?



The theory of structural dissociation comes from the point of view that no one is born with an integrated personality. The theory’s proponents suggest that, instead, infants have a loose collection of ego states to handle their basic needs, such as getting fed, attaching to a caregiver, and exploring their world.


Under normal circumstances, these ego states integrate naturally into one personality, and this is completed around the age of 6-9.


However, if there is trauma in these children’s lives, the natural process of integration into one coherent person is disrupted. The interaction between childhood trauma and the cohesiveness of the child’s personality leaves ego states, now alters, unable to merge. The failure to integrate is due to traumatic memories that make the child throw up amnesiac barriers between each alter. These walls remain until the person with DID has the memories resurface on their own.


A coherent sense of self will not form when the child’s experience with their caregivers is inconsistent, loving the child one minute and abusing them the next. This maltreatment prevents healthy attachment to the caregiver and instead causes disorganized attachment. The child’s failure to integrate is extraordinarily disruptive and causes the formation of self-states.


What are Alters?



Trauma happens when one emotional part remains separated from the original personality (the apparently normal part). This process is known as primary structural dissociation. Often, a multiple will have many emotional parts, known as secondary structural dissociation. In DID, there are both emotional parts and multiple apparently normal parts. This process is known as tertiary structural dissociation.


A further discussion of the different personal structures is needed.


Emotional parts. These are dissociative parts of the survivors’ personalities, containing traumatic memories, internalized beliefs, and learned responses, to name a few. Reminders of the trauma from childhood bring forward EPs, and therefore, EPs live in the past and may experience much of everyday life through this lens.


In primary dissociation, EPs might be limited in their direct memories of the trauma. Dissociative flashbacks are common, leaving them unaware of the present. These parts may experience anger, self-hatred, and guilt and may also try to reenact such as their fight-or-fight response by fighting or running away physically or through dissociation.


In dissociative identity disorder, the EP can experience triggering by benign stimuli that have become associated with trauma of the past. Some EPs may present with the perception that they are kids (tertiary dissociation) and do not handle life today very well. However, for all intents and purposes, when a person is dissociated into a child alter, it is critical to note that they are children who need protection and love. When you love your alters, you are loving yourself.


Apparently normal part. These are rational, grounded, and present-oriented parts that handle everyday life. Other jobs, for the apparently normal part, are social interaction, caretaking of others, work, play, and learning.


Because the ANP cannot integrate the traumatic materials the emotional parts hold, the person may turn highly phobic and avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma they suffered in childhood.


Avoidant behaviors for the ANP may include amnesia, insensitivity to some sensory input, and numbing. Because these behaviors are very mentally draining, the person is left feeling depressed, anxious, hopeless, guilty, or ashamed.


DID consists of multiple emotional parts and apparent normal parts.


For more information, go to this website.


Treatment for Structural Dissociation



When one gets treatment for structural dissociation, you are really being treated for DID. The best treatment so far is psychotherapy and some medications to control the other disorders that often accompany dissociative identity disorder, like migraines, high blood pressure, and other ailments.


Unfortunately, according to the consensus of psychologists and psychiatrists, there is no other accepted treatment.


However, there are as yet to be accepted treatments such as EMDR and brain spotting. Many have found relief from these therapies, but there needs to be research to prove alternative treatments for DID.


Ending Our Time Together


I have found the theory of structural dissociation fascinating since I first heard it. I find that it deftly explains dissociative identity disorder in a way that is comprehensible and brings DID out of the darkness.


Research is being done to explain dissociative identity disorder further, but not nearly enough. I hope that someone, perhaps a psychiatrist, will decide to investigate DID.


“Our wounds are often the openings into the best and most beautiful part of us.” – David Richo.

“And I felt like my heart had been so thoroughly and irreparably broken that there could be no real joy again, that at best, there might eventually be a little contentment. Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces, and move on, and I tried to; I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn’t have to anymore.”- Anne Lamott





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