Dissociative disorders can occur outside of sleep, but an actual diagnosis of a dissociative disorder from a doctor or therapist is relatively rare. People can experience a sleep disorder that is dissociative and does not affect them during waking hours.
A person with a dissociative sleep disorder may seem to take on a different personality when first falling asleep or right after awakening. In other words, the person seems to “not be himself.” He may walk around, engage in conversation, and perhaps even make something to eat, but he is definitely not “himself.”
Dissociative sleep disorders are different from sleep walking and other similar sleep disorders. Dissociation is a defense mechanism the mind creates in order to allow people to deal with physical or psychological trauma.
The mind places the memory of the trauma in a different section of the memory banks so the memory isn’t accessible with the conscious mind. This means that the person with the dissociative sleep disorder may not even be aware that the trauma ever took place because it’s not an accessible memory.
Right before falling asleep, or right upon waking, the mind may allow the person a small amount of access to the memory, prompting an immediate dissociation. The conscious mind cannot deal with the painful memories, so instead of facing the memories dissociation occurs as a defense mechanism. The person is not even aware of the switch, and many times will not even remember the event.
In extreme cases, the person stays in the dissociative state long enough to wander off and begin an entirely new life with a new identity. This extremely rare event is called a dissociative fugue. If it’s related to a dissociative sleep disorder, the fugue will begin either just as the person begins to fall asleep or instead upon awakening.
Keep in mind that these instances are rare indeed, and that there are other sleep disorders that may seem similar but are not the same thing. Dissociative disorders are not common, and dissociative sleep disorders do not occur in people who do not have a preexisting dissociative disorder.
In other words, this is not a sleep disorder that a person will just suddenly develop out of nowhere. There must first be a dissociative disorder present, which usually is a result of trauma as a young child.
Many people are familiar with the idea of dissociative disorders because of the name the disorder used to go by: Multiple Personalities Disorder. For some people with this disorder, the dissociation does not occur unless it is brought on by a state of sleep.
Experts hypothesize that something occurs within the sleep state to trigger the usually-inaccessible memories of trauma, and as a defense the mind switches to an alternate personality so the conscious mind doesn’t have to deal with the emotional pain.
Treatment for dissociative sleep disorders include intense psychotherapy and treatment with a sleep specialist trained to treat this rare disorder. It is important to seek treatment for this sleep disorder because it can be a dangerous situation.