Can Drug Use Cause Dissociative Disorder?

May 25, 2022 , Agape Treatment

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Dissociative disorders are a family of serious mental illnesses characterized by disconnections among all the aspects of a person’s sense of self, including memories, perception, consciousness, and personality. Essentially, the unity of a person’s identity comes apart.

Dissociative disorders occur when the stress associated with a situation becomes so severe a person’s mind segments itself into different identities as a means to escape reality. This process, although extreme, is a self-protective coping mechanism that later becomes a full-fledged mental illness.

Four Types of Dissociative Disorders

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)

DID affects about 1 percent of the adult population. It’s also one of the most severe psychological disorders, with over 70% of people with DID having attempted suicide.

Once called multiple personality disorder, DID is almost always caused by severe and chronic abuse or neglect in childhood. In DID, 2 or more distinct identities exert control over a person’s behaviors. Each of these identities, called an “alter,” has a different name, personality, and memories. Each alter will also have different preferences and mannerisms.

Dissociative identity disorder is accompanied by dissociative amnesia in the vast majority of cases.

Dissociative Amnesia

A person experiences dissociative amnesia when they can’t remember details about a traumatic event, but they do recall that the event happened. A person with dissociative amnesia may be able to remember some degree of the stressful event, but the specifics are lost.

Dissociative Fugue

A person experiencing a dissociative fugue abruptly loses all memory of their life, identity, and past. When a dissociative fugue lasts for more than a few hours, a person may travel away from home, create a new identity, and live as that new identity. After emerging from the fugue state, the sufferer has little to no memory of the events that transpired in their new identity.

Dissociative fugue is associated with chronic abuse in childhood coupled with high stress in a person’s life at the time of the dissociation.

Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder

Depersonalization is an intense feeling of extreme detachment from one’s body, thoughts, feelings, and actions. Derealization is accompanied by feelings of being detached from one’s surroundings. A person’s ability to concentrate, remember, and focus will also be impaired, as will their sense of occupying their body to the point of not recognizing themselves in a mirror. People with the depersonalization-derealization disorder often feel out of control.

As with all dissociative disorders, the depersonalization-derealization disorder tends to show up in adolescence and early adulthood. Its origins lie in severe childhood trauma, although anyone may temporarily experience some symptoms of depersonalization-derealization during times of profound stress, such as a natural disaster, combat, or being suddenly plunged into a life-or-death situation. In those situations, people report feeling calm and detached, as if they were on autopilot. 

Can Drug Use Cause Dissociative Disorders?

There is some evidence that long-term alcoholism or cocaine addiction may cause chronic dissociative symptoms that are not severe enough to be classified as a dissociative disorder.

As well, recreational drug use with hallucinogens can cause anyone to have brief and temporary dissociative symptoms. These symptoms go away after the drug has completely washed out of a person’s system. This isn’t considered a disorder because the impairment resolves itself rapidly once the chemicals cause it to leave a person’s body.

For most people, even serious drug abuse or drug addiction will not cause a dissociative disorder. Dissociative disorders are caused when a person experiences extremely traumatic psychological conditions. This may include chronic childhood abuse, torture, or the types of violent trauma suffered in combat, for example.

But there is a powerful connection between drug use and dissociative disorders.

The Link Between Drug Abuse and Dissociative Disorders

Neither drug abuse nor drug addiction typically causes dissociative disorders. However, most people with untreated dissociative disorders abuse drugs to manage the symptoms of their disorder or to suppress the memories of the traumas that fuel the disorder. In that way, drug addiction and dissociative disorders become frequently co-occurring disorders. In fact, one recent study has shown about 37 % of patients with a substance use disorder also meet the criteria for a dissociative disorder.

This relationship isn’t surprising, as many people develop a substance abuse disorder while trying to self-medicate the often intolerably painful symptoms of a psychological disorder.

Treating These Co-Occurring Disorders

Dual-diagnosis care is the most effective way to treat dissociative disorder co-occurring with substance abuse. In a dual-diagnosis treatment program, both drug use and dissociative disorder are treated simultaneously. This approach is essential to recovery because both conditions fuel each other.

If you or someone you love has dissociative disorder as a co-occurring disorder, our dual diagnosis program can help. We offer a diverse range of medical and mental health services on our Florida campus, as well as many holistic therapies for promoting better health all-around. Get in touch with us today to find out more about our programs or to start your intake interview.