How to Help Someone Deal With Dissociative Identity Disorder Triggers

A person with dissociative identity disorder (DID) will experience “triggers.” A trigger is an event that causes a change in personality such that an alternate part of the person takes over the experience of the moment. The main part of the person (often referred to as the host) may have no memory of the switch to another part of them (referred to as an alter) or of anything that follows. This is actually an amazing coping mechanism – the DID system functions to protect the host from painful experiences and the memories of those experiences. The system assesses risk based on its memories of previous abuse and hurt and makes instantaneous connections to err on the side of caution.

A trigger can be a place, sound, smell or touch. Certain times of the year or holidays can be a trigger. Being around a lot of people or being alone. The expression on someone’s face, the tone or volume of their voice. The list is endless.  Loving someone with dissociative identity disorder requires a heightened level of vigilance so as to anticipate and avoid triggers whenever possible. This can be challenging, especially in the beginning of your relationship.

Here are some ways in which you can help:

1.  Avoid crowds and noise.

A DID system is constantly scanning for threats, which can be difficult to do in the midst of a lot of activity and people.  Though “littles” (the younger alters) might get very excited about an upcoming event, special occasion or going somewhere like Disneyland, they (and you!) can find yourselves facing disappointment when the protective alter changes the plans or suddenly finds himself present and has an aggressive and negative reaction to the experience. To minimize disappointments or awkward public outbursts, try planning for fun to happen in your loved one’s safe environment.

2.  Resist pointing out the obvious.

Though I do not live with DID, I witness the everyday impact on my husband to have set goals and projects for the day, to then come present many hours later with either zero things accomplished or a hundred seemingly meaningless things started but not taken to completion. There is a tremendous amount of frustration that builds up for your DID loved one, and shame if they feel they’ve let you down. These feelings can trigger a depressed alter to take over, believing there is no point in even trying. There’s no need to comment on the failures of the day; your loved one already knows. Instead, intentionally approach every single day with the goal to find something about your loved one that you can appreciate, something you are grateful for, and tell him that instead.

3.  De-clutter and keep things organized.

Living with someone who has DID creates chaos. You are in a constant state of unpredictability, never knowing who or what to expect. For the DID person, the chaos can be both internal and external if different parts are working at cross-purposes. One alter starts fixing the car and suddenly another alter is putting on makeup and planning an evening out.  Though the dress they’re wearing may be beautiful, if the car is needed and no one knows where they left the wrench, the part that is critical of the rest of the system is triggered. His defeatist message: now no one is going anywhere and the car might as well be set on fire. Implementing systems in your home (everything has its place and there’s a place for everything) and downsizing the amount of “stuff” you own (the less there is, the less that can be misplaced) helps to at least deal with the external chaos to create an environment that is more conducive to peace and calm for everyone.

4.  Be patient.

Your loved one is healing. It takes time. It isn’t easy. Every trigger will feel like two giant steps backward. The important thing is to keep taking steps forward. Hold their hand and just keep walking together.

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