Imagine feeling disconnected from your thoughts and experiences, like you are observing these from the outside rather than experiencing them.
Or perhaps feeling like things are unreal, dreamlike or ‘foggy’.
Imagine how you might feel if you felt disconnected from your body and your senses, or how you might feel if time felt out of kilter.
Or how about not being able to remember chunks of time.
These are some of the experiences of people when they have dissociative symptoms.
What is Dissociation?
Dissociation is a mental experience where people disconnect from their own thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity.
It is often thought of as one of the mind’s defence mechanisms against severe or prolonged stress or emotional distress. However, as factors such as sleep loss can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms, other explanations for these symptoms are being considered.
Dissociative symptoms are actually relatively common. They can be isolated incidences, or occur repeatedly and either with or without other mental health symptoms. For those people who experience recurrent dissociative experiences that make them distressed or limit their functioning in life, we would start to consider whether a specific mental health condition exists.
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)
The dissociative condition that has received the most media attention is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), the current diagnostic label for the experience of what is popularly called “Split Personalities” or “Multiple Personality Disorder”.
In this condition, a person’s dissociation from the experiences of the self are so absolute that another self is created; or where another entity appears to have ‘taken over’ the person’s body. In general, though the terms “split personalities” and “multiple personality disorder” are misused by non-health professionals as meaning someone who experiences severe mood swings.
Dissociation is a core feature of other disorders such as Dissociative amnesia and Depersonalisation/Derealisation Disorder. Dissociation is also a relatively common symptom of both Acute Stress Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, while not key diagnostic features of other conditions, dissociative experiences can be experienced by people experiencing a range of other mental health conditions such as Borderline Personality Disorder, OCD, anxiety, depression and Bipolar Disorder.
Treatment for Dissociation
Treatment for people experiencing distressing or limiting dissociative symptoms often comprises of a combination of medication and psychological support. The evidence base and the different techniques used vary between conditions. For example, PTSD is well researched and the treatment protocols are evolving as the evidence-base grows; whereas the very nature of conditions such as DID can make it difficult to study. Treatment for dissociative symptoms within other mental health conditions would be conducted within the treatment for those conditions.
However, in each case it is reasonable to expect that a psychologist will work with you to develop strategies to manage or reduce the impact of dissociative symptoms on your life, improve your ability to manage stress, and address underlying factors leading to these symptoms.
At M1 and Vision Psychology we have a number of therapists who work with people experiencing dissociative symptoms.
Author: Kelly Gall, BSc (Hons), M Psych (Health), M Clin Psych, MAPS, MCHP.
Kelly Gall is a Health Psychologist who is passionate about helping clients improve their physical and emotional wellbeing. She works with people experiencing dissociative symptoms, particularly in relation to Acute Stress Disorder, PTSD and other (non-dissociative) mental health disorders. Her therapeutic approach is to develop tailored, holistic and evidence-based treatment plans that incorporate psychological, physical and social strategies aimed at empowering her clients to achieve relief from psychological symptoms and improve their health. Find out more on her website, Healthy Inside and Out.
To make an appointment with Health Psychologist Kelly Gall, call (07) 3067 9129 or you can book online today.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
- Dissociation and dissociative mechanisms in panic disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and depression: A review and heuristic framework. (2014). Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 1(3), 243-270. doi:10.1037/cns0000023
- Korzekwa, M. I., Dell, P. F., & Pain, C. (2009). Dissociation and borderline personality disorder: An update for clinicians.Current Psychiatry Reports, 11(1), 82-88. doi:10.1007/s11920-009-0013-1
- Lynn, S. J., Lilienfeld, S. O., Merckelbach, H., Giesbrecht, T., & van der Kloet, D. (2012). Dissociation and dissociative disorders: Challenging conventional wisdom. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(1), 48-53.
- van Heugten-van der Kloet, Dalena, Giesbrecht, T., & Merckelbach, H. (2015). Sleep loss increases dissociation and affects memory for emotional stimuli. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 47, 9-17. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2014.11.002