What is Dissociation?

(5 minute read)

Dissociation is an experience in which we feel removed from our current environment. It can range from feeling somewhat zoned out, to a disturbing unfamiliarity with our surroundings and recent behavior. The wide variety of unusual symptoms that accompany dissociation can make it extremely frightening to the person experiencing it. Although dissociative symptoms and disorders are quite common, people are afraid to disclose them. Many people worry they either won’t be believed or will be seen as crazy by friends, family, and clinicians.

In this article, I explain what dissociation is, why it happens, and why you’re not losing your mind. I also describe what it typically feels like and discuss how therapy can help. I hope to improve your understanding of these symptoms and alleviate some of the worries you might have. Also, to provide you with a clearer idea of what you might expect should you seek therapy.

Dissociation is a Protective Defense

Dissociation and its common misspelling ‘disassociation’ refers to a disruption in the normal integration of mental activities. It can occur during a traumatic event, or long afterwards when we are in no obvious danger. Symptoms can also occur without any exposure to trauma, although research shows a strong link between trauma and dissociative symptoms.

Dissociation during trauma

When our body is unable to escape from pain or unbearable emotion, it can automatically move into a response we know as dissociation. Automobile accidents, natural disasters, and cruelty at the hand of others can all induce dissociation. From a biological perspective, the brain is behaving exactly the way it should when faced with extreme stress. Dr. Richard Loewenstein, an expert on dissociative disorders, describes this as our body protecting itself from overwhelming fear and anxiety. It is an entirely normal and natural defensive mechanism involving the temporary, partial shut-down of specific brain regions. This shutdown leaves you feeling numb, paralyzed, unreal, or otherwise removed from what is happening.

Post-traumatic support

The subsequent environment can have a significant impact on how we respond to trauma. Access to emotional warmth, safety, and nurturing relationships can lead to healing. However, when these are lacking and there is continued hardship, the likelihood of developing dissociative symptoms increases.

Dissociative symptoms after trauma/without threat

Despite causing considerable distress, dissociative symptoms are an effective means of removing ourselves from emotional discomfort. It can, however, become a problem when applied instead of more appropriate coping strategies. Dissociation is understood to be just that – a coping strategy. What began as a means of coping with extreme stress is used to deal with all sorts of strong feelings. These include loneliness, relationship difficulties, setbacks, and even pleasurable feelings. Research has found that symptoms improve when people learn to manage emotions, relationships, and process trauma.

What Does Dissociation Feel Like? – Symptoms of Dissociation

Symptoms of dissociation can affect memory, identity, our connection with reality, and our recognition of ourselves and our behavior. They include:

  1. feeling like you are in a trance
  2. difficulty remembering important events in your life
  3. feeling mechanical or robotic
  4. not recognizing yourself in the mirror
  5. feeling as though you are in a fog
  6. close friends and family feeling somewhat unfamiliar
  7. hearing voices, especially of children
  8. feeling an inner struggle over what to think or what to decide
  9. rapid mood changes
  10. difficulty believing some of your past behavior and actions
  11. inability to recall chunks of time
  12. not knowing who you truly are

Symptoms must occur in the absence of drug intoxication or withdrawal. Do keep in mind, and this cannot be stressed enough, that having several of these symptoms does not mean you have a dissociative disorder. Only a licensed mental health professional can, and should, complete a thorough assessment. The Multidimensional Inventory of Dissociation by Dr. Paul Bell is one such measure. This extensive assessment contains 218 questions and provides detailed information on dissociation and similar disorders.

Treatment for Dissociation

I will begin by explaining how to deal with symptoms when they are actually occurring. Then I will describe what you might expect from therapy.

Grounding techniques for dissociation

Engaging brain regions that seem to be offline can help bring someone out of dissociation. For example, engaging all five senses by focusing on what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. Doing so with curiosity seems to be particularly helpful in getting these brain regions back online. Other strategies, recommended by Dr. Bethany Brand, an expert on the treatment of dissociative disorders, include handling physical objects that anchor you in the present; listening to uplifting music; playing with a pet; restricting yourself to a safe area such as a garden or chair; and calling a supportive friend. Calming activity is generally more effective than trying to relax or meditate.

Therapy for Dissociation

Treatment must always be preceded by a thorough assessment. Once a dissociative disorder has been confirmed, therapy should occur in stages.

Therapy for dissociation begins with helping you to effectively manage emotions and relationships. If necessary, this will also include tackling issues such as substance abuse, self-harm, and any reckless behavior. A good deal of time will be spent learning how to replace these behaviors with healthier coping strategies. Once you feel more stable and supported, therapy can then move to the second stage, which involves helping you process traumatic experiences if you so choose. A third and final stage of therapy would be to address individual goals, for example, developing a strong sense of identity or pursuing new life goals.

Where to get help for Dissociative Symptoms

If dissociative symptoms are impacting your life, treatment from a professional therapist can help. If you are interested in learning more about how therapy for dissociation can help you, please get in touch.