How Trauma May Lead to Dissociative Disorders


You probably are not surprised to hear that painful, traumatic events in a person’s life can lead to tremendous emotional and mental disruption.

As a result, along with developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other psychiatric disorders from prior trauma, a person may also develop something called a “dissociative disorder,” as a means of coping with the trauma.

The trauma itself may be too difficult to confront, and therefore, the person may slip into a dissociative state in order to escape. In a sense, dissociation can be an adaptive, self-protective way in which a person manages extreme stress and personal threats. However, in the long term, dissociation can further disrupt and impair a person’s life and functioning.

Link Between Trauma and Dissociation

People who have experienced sexual abuse and/or physical or emotional abuse and/or neglect in childhood may be particularly at risk for developing a dissociative disorder. In fact, 90 percent of all people with dissociative identity disorder report at least one type of childhood abuse and/or neglect—dissociative identity disorder being the most common type of dissociation in which a person develops two or more distinct personalities.

To further support this link between trauma and dissociation, authors of a 2014 article in Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience state that people with dissociative disorders report the highest occurrence of childhood abuse and/or neglect among all psychiatric diseases. This is a pretty astounding connection, suggesting that dissociation is the ultimate reaction to significant trauma.

Link Between PTSD and Dissociation

Dissociative disorders have been found to be somewhat common among people with other psychiatric disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In other words, if a person develops PTSD, research suggests that they may be more likely to also have a dissociative disorder. For example, a study of 628 women from the general community found that, of those with a dissociative disorder (the most common of which was dissociative disorder not otherwise specified, followed by dissociative amnesia), 7 percent also had a PTSD diagnosis.

That being said, it is important to understand that not everyone who experiences trauma develops psychiatric conditions like a dissociative disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In addition, there is a clear distinction between PTSD and dissociation. PTSD may develop after a single traumatic experience, as either a child (for example, witnessing a violent event or natural disaster) or an adult (for example, undergoing a major surgery). On the other hand, dissociation usually results from trauma and stress in childhood, not adulthood, and stems from chronic trauma (for example, repeated episodes of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse). Dissociative disorders are also considered rare psychiatric conditions.

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Reviewed by Steven Gans, MD