About Alter Switching in Dissociative Identity Disorder

June 14, 2018 Becca Hargis

Dissociative identity disorder and alter switching are mysterious to many people. Learn about DID alter switching here at HealthyPlace.

Alter switching and dissociative identity disorder (DID) are interdependent. The term "'switching" means simply to change, but, in reference to DID, it means to change a part, an alter, or a headmate, as they are called. Everyone has parts that comprise his or her personality. You might have remarked before, "Part of me really wants to improve my health." For someone to reference a single part of his or her personality is normal, but for those of us with DID, we experience more extreme parts of ourselves that have their own thoughts, opinions, beliefs, wishes, needs, etc. The switching of these parts is difficult, jarring, and disconcerting. If you have DID or know someone with DID, it is important to understand the signs of when someone with dissociative identity disorder is switching alters and what you can do.

Signs of Alter Switching in Dissociative Identity Disorder  

Just as each DID system is different, the way we experience switching can also differ. While not an exhaustive list, below are experiences that might indicate when I am about to, or in the process of, switching alters in DID.

  • Hearing a headmate's voice in my head
  • My head goes foggy
  • I cannot concentrate, process information, or think clearly
  • I hear outside voices from afar, as if in a tunnel
  • My head feels chaotic
  • I can physically feel my facial affect changing and my emotions flooding my facial expression
  • My handwriting changes, sometimes from messy and precise or from print to cursive
  • I stare blankly at the wall or floors and "feel" myself being moved out of the way
  • My eyes change shape and color
  • Shivers run through me as though I'm cold
  • I feel detached from myself as if someone else is "running the show"
  • I have headaches that cannot be relieved with medication
  • I feel dizzy and light-headed
  • My thoughts get louder
  • I do not make eye contact
  • I take a deep breath and breath an enormous sigh as if to alleviate building stress
  • I look around the room suspiciously as if I'm unaware of my surroundings
  • I frequently watch the clocks to account for time lost

What Causes Alter-Switching in Dissociative Identity Disorder?

The causes of dissociative identity disorder alter-switching vary. In my system, I do not have control over when my headmates switch; however, I do know ahead of time what situations might trigger a switch in alters. Triggers include:

  • Memories - good or bad
  • Anything from the five senses
  • Strong, uncomfortable emotions
  • Extreme stress
  • Certain times of the year
  • Looking at old pictures
  • An outsider mentioning a headmate's name
  • Tremendous anxiety
  • Noises
  • Crowded places
  • Journaling

This list is a great place to start when thinking ahead to possible instances that might trigger you. Understanding triggers is often a good practice so we can prepare ourselves for what we might need in order to keep us safe.

Dissociative identity disorder alter-switching is always done to keep the system functioning and safe. Everything in the system happens for a reason, even if we do not know what it is. It is usually a defensive response to anything the system deems threatening.

While knowing switching can be a protective act, I usually find the switches disturbing, especially when parts come and go like a revolving door or jockey for front position (Three Reasons Why People with DID Hate Switching). Not feeling in control feels very overwhelming and even embarrassing, regardless if no one knows but me. Embarrassment, frustration, and shame frequently plague our system when switching. However, having frequent internal communication, dialogue, and understanding with my headmates makes the system more amenable to an agreement on terms of when and how headmates switch. Trying to block a headmate is seldom helpful and will most likely cause hostility and anger in the system.

Do Outsiders Know When We Are Alter-Switching in DID?

Most outsiders, including my husband and often times our therapist, do not realize when a switch has taken place. There are some signs, such as altered behaviors, changes in language, uncharacteristic differences in beliefs and thoughts. Usually, if I am angry and cursing, that is a telltale sign an angry headmate is out because her angry behavior is contrary to my behavior. Along with a distinct way of talking, an outsider might know we have switched by our mannerisms and body language.

What to Do After Your Loved One with DID Has Switched Alters

Trying to figure out what to do when your loved one has already switched alters is too late. The headmates will want to feel safe and cared for, so a plan is necessary. The first thing to do before a headmate switches is to have a plan of action already put in place on how the system wants you to respond to a switch. In the plan, find out if questioning the switching headmates is permissible and, especially, if it is allowable to ask the new headmate his or her name.

Do not ask the alter you were with to resurface. Remember, in order to love one headmate means you should love them all because they all work to protect the host. Please do not judge the headmate that has just surfaced, even though he or she might have interrupted an important moment. Always stick to the plan. Do not veer off. Lastly, do not take it personally when one headmate leaves and another switches into place. The switching may have nothing to do with you and arguing with any headmate will not make you an ally.  

In Conclusion

Lastly, your headmates have been with you the majority of your life. They are there, and in their own way, to protect you. Unless they are a danger to you or others, do not struggle with him or her being out. Be gentle with them. Remember, they saved your life before you could save it on your own.

Please check out the following video to learn about the three types of dissociative identity disorder alter switches that affect my memory.

APA Reference
Hargis, B. (2018, June 14). About Alter Switching in Dissociative Identity Disorder, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 24 from

Author: Becca Hargis

Becca is a mental health advocate who is passionate about ending the stigma against mental illness. She is currently writing a book on her experiences with dissociative identity disorder. You can connect with her on her personal blog, TwitterFacebook and on Instagram.

Maddie Johannes
July, 25 2019 at 4:07 am

I have a question! so a therapist once told me that there’s a possibility i could have DID. So i was wondering, is it supposed to be obvious to you if you have it? i don’t even know how i would be able to recognize the signs.

August, 13 2019 at 1:25 pm

Hi, Maddie. Thank you for your comment and for being part of our community. It is very often the case that the individual does not know they have DID until someone else points it out. People with DID know that something is different about him- or herself but do not know what it is. It is not always obvious that it is DID. Every system is different, so you may not be able to tell the signs. That doesn't negate the possibility you might have DID. My suggestion is to read as much as you can on DID. HealthyPlace has excellent resources to help you understand the disorder, and, with the help of your therapist, consider the signs and symptoms you might be experiencing.

May, 29 2019 at 7:33 pm

I just discovered thru my therapist that what I thought was my wild imagination for years is actually DID. I can talk to my others in a room in my head (Fraser’s table) but I’d like to know if they can hear my thoughts or my conversations when not in that room. I’m feeling really paranoid about that now.

May, 2 2019 at 10:08 pm

Just curious, I see a lot of videos on YouTube of people who supposedly have DID but I'm really sceptical. Do people with DID really have complete wardrobes, hairstyles and makeup looks for each altar?

May, 24 2019 at 6:36 pm

I think it depends on how many alters and what their preferences are. I have two alters, but we all share blue as our favorite color, so that simplifies things. But I don’t wear makeup, one of them does. One wears “pretty” things, while I care only about comfort. We don’t have completely different wardrobes, but we do have more choices than any one of us would have. What my hairstyle and color is depends on who shows up for the appointment. Sometimes we agree on something (or at least compromise), sometimes we don’t. Often we don’t.

April, 24 2019 at 10:39 am

this is just another story.. I'm wondering what is happening inside of me. 'Cause there are so many things I don't think fit my current diagnosis of b(orderline)pd and ptsd. Few years ago I considered a dissociative disorder but I'm not sure. Maybe it's not DID exactly but I know there a fragments of "me" which crave different things. But "I" can't really get in touch or influence them. I wish there was some kind of communication I could try.
Hope I can make some sense out of this soon x

August, 3 2019 at 4:19 pm

BPD has become a controversial label in recent years, and for good reason. Smart therapists and researchers in the field recognize and acknowledge that what is labeled BPD is really a trauma disorder. And many people with complex (developmental) trauma develop c-ptsd, so it also goes to follow that there are many with the BPD label who also dissociate. It makes sense, when you read up on it.
It really doesn’t matter if it’s “just” a dissociative disorder or if it’s the whole caboodle of DID. They exist on a continuum, a spectrum, if you will. What you call it really shouldn’t matter.
If you were my good friend and you confided in me what you posted here, I would tell you that I would feel a lot better if you saw a recognized leader or expert in the field of trauma. You can check the ISSTD (International Society for Study Of Trauma) for a qualified professional. I wish I had done that nine years ago, instead of wasting years and so much money on therapists who were not at all qualified and should have known that.
So be good to yourself, and go see a qualified expert. Look up Sandra Paulsen, PhD, and the organizations she belongs to, as well as her colleagues. These people can help you. It’s worth giving it a shot. You deserve that. You do not deserve to be slapped with a pejorative label like BPD.

March, 14 2019 at 11:18 pm

I was diagnosed with DID in the early 90s. I worked with a therapist for nearly 25 years, not nearly all the work was on DID. She retired. I'm close to 83 and a new alter has appeared: a very young child, at most 2 years old. I have learned many techniques and achieved much integration but this kid has me buffaloed. My question for the community is do any of you know any techniques for communicating with a pre-verbal alter?

September, 9 2019 at 1:15 pm

I have an alter around the ages of 3-5, but they are entirely nonverbal. It feels like there's a blockade in my throat when they front. What I've done to make that period easier is use writing/typing to communicate when possible, and to buy and use things that are comforting to them (toys, watching children's media, etc) . A lot of very young alters hold a lot of trauma, it may be helpful to do something that works to de-trigger other alters, things that make you feel calm and safe.

a girl in need
March, 7 2019 at 7:46 pm

ok so hi, im a 14 year old girl and i feel like im kinda losing my mind. um most of the times i wake up its from a voice calling my name, they are all different, idk how to explain it but one of them wakes me up just a couple seconds before my alarm and the others all have their different ways of yelling my name or sometimes even whispering it. I have these urges to do things i normally wouldn't do like for example; i hate pink but sometimes i find myself wanting to run to it and i know this may sound crazy but sometimes i feel like there is actual you know, people up there I've given names or atleast i think i did i have an image of how each looks and idk [all this stuff has been happening for as long as i can remember but i learned tht its not normal so now im actually acknowledging it]. I've found text messages in my phone that i dont remember sending i also saw a message left in my notes that i dont recall writing. many of my civics classes or social studies classes [which are the 2 classes i feel most anxious in because of the teachers] i dont remember going to or being present in. just last week apparently i gave my teacher my book in i.t and i dont even remember doing it i actually thought my book was still in my bag but idk she had it. all i know is that i have headaches that won't go away, my vision and hearing do become very cloudy and i cant comprehend it. even right now i just lost my train of thought i was going to write something but i just blanked out. I talked to my friends about it and one of them suggest that i have did but im to afraid of therapy or going to my mother. i just want to know if im just imagining this all or if this is actually a serious case. anyone can help me out?

March, 8 2019 at 12:03 am

I know almost fully how you feel. I’ve been having a lot of episodes like that, and it’s terrifying me. I hope you figure it out soon!

Aya and Mj
May, 23 2019 at 9:48 am

Yes, its a serious case, you should probably go to a psychiatrist and tell them your symptoms, it may be scary but it is necessary for a healthy brain.

February, 10 2019 at 3:03 pm

Hi, I’m starting to believe my best friend has DID. Last night she messaged me a really long story that she wrote herself that was heavily existential and so far removed from how she normally writes. We like to send each other poems and stories that we wrote, but this wasn’t even close to what or how she normally writes. She then started talking to me directly, and again, it wasn’t at all how she normally talked. I’d ask her questions such as “are you ok? What’s wrong?” And instead of a clearcut answer like normal she responded with “Thoughts and feelings and the mind, but I have healed some of the hurts. We will be ok.” She was an entirely different person, claiming to have separated from herself when I asked if she was dissociating (she has a history of depression and anxiety and occasionally she has dissociated episodes, but never this bad) and calling herself “we.” A normal response from her would have just been yes or no, and if she was dissociating like she used to she would jump at the chance to talk to someone familiar, but whoever took over refused to talk. This morning I asked her if she was ok, and she claimed to have no memory whatsoever of the night before or her conversation with me. She then said she was a bit scared because this has happened before where there were entire chunks of time lost and she would “wake up” hours later in a place she doesn’t remember going to, doing something she would normally hate. I asked her to set up an appointment with a therapist and I’ve been researching all day trying to find ways to help her or to understand what is happening to her. If anyone has any other advice or wants to share their take on all this I would gladly appreciate it. I’m very worried about her and I want to help my best friend cope with this.

Kace D
January, 24 2019 at 5:52 pm

Among most of you, I also have been diagnosed with DID and although I’m not an expert, this was exactly the information we were looking for. It is so complicated to explain and this article has given us the courage to stay strong.

January, 22 2019 at 9:43 pm

i have just come to realize this has been occurring. i have been in various therapies and treatment for borderline throughout the years..but the amnesia is new. close friends have reported i develop a lisp as well? do you recommend a book to help me cope with the memory loss and prevention of switching ?

January, 12 2019 at 10:36 pm

I think my husband has switched. His behavior I completely different from normal and I don't know what to do... How do I approach this alter gently.. I've not met this one before, he's new to me. Can I get my husband back? Please help!! I'm very scared because this alter is talking divorce and my husband wouldn't do that. We have 4 children and I don't want to lose him to an alter..

May, 19 2019 at 1:50 am

I find myself in exactly the same situation. I hope you have managed to find ways to. Communicate with your husband.

December, 4 2018 at 10:06 pm

i've had an alter get locked out, we call it when a personality "dies"
um, so far switches haven't been stopped, just delayed massively, causing the alter to be tired for long periods of time. switching for me takes lots of energy and if i don't have enough energy for it, i usually pass out and switch while i'm asleep.

November, 12 2018 at 10:05 pm

Is it possible to completely stop a switch from happing? Or be in mid switch and come back to yourself?
And can an alter be locked away if so can they also come back?

October, 8 2018 at 5:34 pm

Also forgot to write I have the same issue with remembering things from my past and knowing if the memories are real or not. I do remember hearing my name called alot too but never thought of that as possibly being related or not. I have no idea I first heard about DID lastnight so I'm not intirely sure if I could have it or not but its nice to know other people out there experience the same.

October, 8 2018 at 5:27 pm

I'm the same Dylan, I am very girly but sometimes act completely manly... its so odd like when I feel manly it feels like this is who ive always been and like talking to my partner and hes mates like I'm one of the boys, but then I can feel a sudden change loose interest in the converatations, feel stupid and like what am I doing and then carry on doing what I was doing before... I have a similar things with sports but I'm not sporty, and gothic things, but I'm not into black or heavy music unless I'm "in that mood".

August, 18 2018 at 11:39 pm

Hi, I'm starting to really starting to suspect that I have this disorder. There are a lot of memories from my early childhood that I keep questioning if were real or not. It's hard to explain. It's like I have some memory of it happening but I just can't be sure. I used to here voices calling my name. Not so much anymore though. What I've most recently noticed about myself is that I'm always wanting to do something else that I definently wouldn't normally do. A few months ago I was suddenly heavily interested in makeup and men. I'm a guy btw. I don't feel the same way anymore now. I don't find guys attracted like I did before and i dont want to wear makeup. Maybe that was a alter/personality trying to come out? I don't know. There has been more cases like that too. I need help figuring this out.

Malissia Anderson
August, 3 2018 at 3:35 pm

hi, i have DID. Im 39 year old female. She talks to the bad men because her " HEADMATES" are trying to become fulfilled, they are looking for something. she may not be in communication with ALL her headmates, it sounds like one of them is acting out, MIne do the same. I found online that I was on a "dating app" but have no memory of setting up account, so she needs to sit down and "TALK" with them about no doing destructive things to YOUR relationship or just accept it and take precautions...

July, 20 2018 at 12:49 pm

I think my wife is switching some times because some times when we have strong or conversation her eyes blink and she seems to be disconected from the subject we are talking but this is only for about. 1 minute do consider this DID symptoms
Also she is talking by WhatsApp with bad strange man and always I ask her why you talk with this bad man she apologize and says that she felt it was not her but other person and again after apology she next day with him
Is this also symptom of DID
Pls I need urgent reply it is very important
Thank you

June, 28 2018 at 2:54 am

I need to be educated in this subject please send me your contact information to review this article on how to get back to my self and understand my condition so that I can live without the need of something that is not a good idea for me

October, 5 2018 at 9:09 pm

Yeah, when someone figures that all out let me know too. I am sick of this! I functioned for many, many years and now I don't. What am I going to do?

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