Dissociation is a mental process that creates a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memory, and sense of identity. Dissociation is a natural and protective trauma response when the full recollection of the traumatic event can be too excruciating for the system, so it’s as if the brain pulls the plug on reality and checks out. It’s mostly associated with a history of psychological and emotional trauma and neglect.
Dissociation is something our brain does to protect us. Our brains are really clever, if you think about it. It knows something terrible is happening and protects itself by checking out and the body will be left to tolerate and store all the trauma when the brain is desperately trying to forget what happened.
Even though this brilliant coping mechanism may have been effective when one is experiencing the trauma, chronic dissociation can have negative impacts on one’s life.
What is Dissociation? Dissociation vs Dissociative Disorders
Dissociation is frequently associated with previous experience of trauma. Research indicates that up to 75% of people experience at least one depersonalization/derealization or dissociative episode in their lives, with only 2% meeting the full criteria for chronic episodes. Dissociation is often correlated with mental illness diagnosis including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), and Borderline Personality Disorder.
Dissociation falls on a continuum in terms of severity, with low levels on one end and high levels of dissociation on the other. The milder versions of dissociation are more normative and may allow you to get through the day. An example of experiencing dissociation on a mild level can look like driving somewhere and having no recollection of the route or when someone is daydreaming in the middle of a work meeting and can’t remember what was talked about. More severe levels of dissociation are associated with full-fledged dissociative disorders or experiencing dissociative fugues that can be incredibly destabilizing and impair functioning. There are different types of Dissociative Disorders including:
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) which was formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, is when a person has two or more distinct identities or personality states, which may alternate within the individual’s conscious awareness. Symptoms of dissociative identity disorder can be debilitating and destabilizing.
Dissociative Amnesia involves not being able to recall information about oneself beyond normal forgetting. Such as an event or period of time, a specific aspect of an event or some events within a period of time, or complete loss of identity and life history.
Depersonalization/derealization disorder is the significant ongoing or recurring experience of one or both Depersonalization and Derealization.
Depersonalization – experiences of unreality or feeling detached from one’s mind, self or body. People may feel as if they are outside their bodies and watching events happening to them.
Derealization – experiences of unreality or feeling disconnected from one’s surroundings. People may feel as if things and people in the world around them are not real.
What Does Dissociation Feel Like?
If you’re wondering, “What does dissociation feel like?”, It’s important to remember that everyone’s experience of dissociation can be different. Sometimes dissociation can feel like you’re having an out-of-body experience, as if you’re watching yourself in a movie. Sometimes it can feel like being not present in your body, and it can also look like forgetting chunks of time or experiencing a mental fog.
What does dissociation feel like? Common signs can include:
- Memory loss of certain time periods, events, people, and personal information
- Feeling numb/spaced out or detached from your emotional state
- Loss of self-awareness
- Scrolling through social media mindlessly for hours on end
- Zoning out in the face of something boring or difficult
- Chronic daydreaming
How to Cope When You’re Feeling Dissociated?
Dissociation may have been a conditioned tendency that helped you with getting through traumatic experiences in the past, but it may not serve you at this stage of your life.
Trauma-informed mental health experts can help you with feeling more empowered to be in control of your responses to your emotions. They will teach you some coping skills and outlets to tolerate the emotions and bodily sensations instead of checking out, including mindfulness skills and somatic tools to bring you back to your window of tolerance.
Some of the grounding techniques that may be helpful with dissociation can include:
- Breathing exercises, including diaphragmatic/belly breathing & box breathing
- Orienting which is using your 5 senses to bring yourself back into the present moment
- Havening Technique
The first step is to notice that you’re doing it with kindness and compassion. What are the early somatic cues you notice when you’re dissociating? What situations typically trigger this response in you? Reflecting on the following can be beneficial:
- Emotions you are experiencing
- The situation or event that was triggering
- The state of your nervous system – Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn
- Bodily sensations – for example, tightness, tension, or tingling in any parts of the body?
- Changes to body temperature – maybe your hands are cold or sweaty.
- Thoughts at this exact moment – how can you remind myself that you won’t judge your brain dissociating but gently bring it back?
- Self-soothe through the 5 senses – smell a candle/essential oils, holding a grounding object in my hands, for example fidget spinners or crystal
- Try to put your phone away and sit in silence for 5 minutes to check in with yourself
So, we can thank our brain for having this amazing instinct to protect us and shield us from harm. We can also take steps to adapt healthier coping strategies when this instinct, and response is no longer serving us.