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What Triggers a DID Switch?

What triggers people with DID to switch to an alternate identity? Learn more about what causes this dissociation?
A DID switch, a dissociation in which a different personality emerges and takes the place of the dominant one, can be painful and bewildering.

Now an excruciating pain spread across his forehead, behind his eyes, and radiated sharp fingers toward the back of his brain. He staggered back against the counter and tried to massage it away. His vision blurred, and he had to close his eyes. He opened them, blinked, and looked around. He began to shake his head. (Excerpt from the novel Twenty-Four Shadows)

The sudden pain, change of vision, and closing and re-opening his eyes signal one of Isaac Bittman’s DID switches.
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a confusing, frustrating mental illness. Someone who lives with DID has within him or her a number of alternate personalities, also called alters or parts. The alters are legitimate identities in their own right, with unique interests, abilities, traits, gender, sexual orientation, and more.
The different identities, who can number from two to hundreds, form in the person’s childhood in response to severe abuse. They emerge throughout life, taking over the main personality and causing perplexing problems and situations. Switches originally happen as a defense mechanism to protect the child from horrible abuse; the child dissociates to escape from an unbearable situation, and a different personality emerges in his/her place. Once he or she grows up and the abuse is no longer a threat, why do switches continue to occur?

No. This couldn’t be. They weren’t really firing him. It just didn’t make any sense. He didn’t miss work the way they were accusing. He didn’t. He came to work. He didn’t miss. He was confused. Heavy guilt joined the rest of his thoughts and feelings, stomping from his mind down to his heart and kicking hard against it. What about his family? He couldn’t lose his job. The room was slanting and spinning, nauseating him. He didn’t know how to convince them or change their minds, but he needed to. His stress level was rising rapidly, and he was struck across his entire forehead with one of his searing headaches. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
When he opened them, he took off his glasses so he could see better and tucked them carefully into his shirt pocket. To make himself more comfortable, he slid down in the chair a little into a bit of a slouched and crossed his right ankle over his left knee. He studied the two people who sat across from him looking so somber. He extended his arms, palms up, and then shrugged. He grinned broadly. “Hey, c’mon, guys. What the heck? It’s me!” He thumbed himself lightly on the chest. “I ain’t got a clue what y’all are talking about, but surely we can make this right.” (Excerpt from Twenty-Four Shadows)
Isaac had just switched again.

In DID, What Triggers a Switch?

In both of the above passages from the novel Twenty-Four Shadows, Isaac is experiencing a switch. Every single time he switches, he’s going about his life when one of his alters takes over. Isaac recedes and a different part emerges. A big question Isaac has is why?
Isaac to his psychiatrist: I’m really sorry. It’s just that I don’t understand this at all.
Dr. Charlie: It’s okay. The experts don’t fully understand it yet, either, but we’ve figured out a lot and we’re constantly learning more. The human brain is so complex that we’ve only just begun to understand it. We do know that it’s strong and it does what it takes to survive.
It’s true. There is so much yet to be learned about DID, including what triggers a switch. Experts continually seek to answer those questions. So far, they’ve figured out some things about why people switch between alternate identities. Switches can be triggered by

  • Stress When someone is under duress, one of his/her alters often emerges to help, to ease tension or pain, to solve a problem, or give the primary personality a break.
  • Memories For all of us, memories can evoke strong feelings, and for people living with DID, they can trigger switches.
  • Strong emotions A sudden onset of emotion, either positive or negative, can cause alters to take the dominant spot in the personality system.
  • Sensory input Sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes can lead to switches between parts.

In looking at things that trigger switches in people who have DID, something important is evident: Every single one of these elements is something that can cause strong reactions in all of us, whether or not we live with DID.
People with DID live with a very difficult challenge that was caused by severe childhood abuse. They are triggered by the same things other people are; the difference is that for them, the trigger leads to dissociation and different identities coming forth to live in the world for a while. Switches are stress reactions that cause different parts of a single human being to emerge.
The movie Split, released in early 2017 features a man living with DID and highlights his switches. While some of this fictitious psychological thriller is quite unrealistic, the talented lead actor does an outstanding job of portraying DID switches. For more on the movie and to help decide whether it’s worth your time, check out these posts:

What the Movie ‘Split’ Got Right (and Wrong)

‘Split’ and Dissociative Identity Disorder: The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

What does it feel like to be Isaac Bittman? Check out this short preview.
Do you have a question about mental health or mental illness or a topic you’d like to hear about? Use the contact form below to submit it (put Q&A in the subject line), and I’ll address it on the Wellbeing&Words Q&A show on YouTube.


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