Dissociation can be a complex and sometimes confusing concept when we are first learning about it. The meaning is debated but largely everyone agrees that we all experience dissociation at some stage in our lives, to varying degrees. When one dissociates, this means that they can feel disconnected from themselves (also known as depersonalisation) and the world around them (also known as depersonalisation).
I found it useful to think of dissociation as being on a continuum varying from experiences of not remembering the drive home on one end of the spectrum (which is very common and not too concerning) and being completely disconnected from yourself and or reality at the other end of the spectrum (far less common, and generally rather distressing).
What is an example of dissociating?
As I said dissociative experiences are on a spectrum but here are some examples to give you an idea;
Examples of mild dissociation (common experiences):
Daydreaming, disappearing into a book or like I said before not remembering the drive home. They all essentially involve becoming unaware with one’s immediate surroundings.
Examples of moderate dissociation (less common, often associated with a range of mental health difficulties):
Feeling intense emotions that suddenly shut off, feeling like we are floating, passing feelings of the world being distorted or unreal.
Examples of severe dissociation (even less common, associated with complex trauma and dissociative disorders):
Identity confusion for example, feeling compelled to behave in a way that you normally wouldn’t, feeling like the world is unreal for periods of time, loss of time, coming too in a place & not knowing how you go there, having different parts of you with separate identities (aka dissociative identity disorder).
What triggers dissociation?
Largely the consensus is that for many people, dissociation is a natural protective response from our nervous system to cope with a trauma that they can’t control. This can be following a one-off traumatic experience more often it is a response to ongoing trauma and abuse during childhood. That being a learnt way of coping that potentially kept us safer in an unsafe environment. Therefore as we get older we keep this way of coping, and our survival brain unconsciously chooses to activate this response when it has perceived a threat that it has interpreted we have no control over. Triggers of dissociation can therefore vary depending on the individual’s experiences. Often when a past trauma is triggered the dissociative response can kick in as the survival brain determines that this is our best chance of survival to make sure it doesn’t happen again. For some, the feeling of any intense emotions at all can trigger the dissociative response, if it had previously been unsafe to express emotions growing up or in a particular relationship (e.g., domestic violence).
What are the signs of dissociation?
Dissociation symptoms or signs that warrant clinical attention
Some people describe dissociation signs like (without being on any substances);
- an out of body experience
- feeling like you are a different person altogether at times
- panic symptoms followed by becoming emotionally numb or detached for feelings
- feeling little or no pain when injured
- losing track of time and this impacting significantly on your everyday life
- not remembering how you got somewhere like you were transported there suddenly
- having tunnel vision where you can’t take in anything else but are ultra focused on what has your attention
- hearing voices in your head that are not yours or not you at this age you currently are
- intense flashbacks of past experiences that feel like they are really happening now
- becoming stiff and unable to move
- becoming so absorbed in make believe that it feels like it is real life
Am I dissociating?
It is possible to experience dissociation and not be aware of it. So often people ask how do I know if I am dissociating? Frankly the nature of feeling disconnected from the body often being a feature of this means that we may not be noticing the disconnect. Referring to the dissociation symptoms above, you can ask yourself how often are these happening and how much of an impact are they having in my life. If you would like to explore this further I would recommend exploring this with your clinician using a dissociative screening test / questionnaire.
There are a couple different psychological questionnaires that your clinician can administer to screen for dissociation. The most commonly used being the Multidimensional Inventory of Dissociation 60-item version and the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES-II). These are not diagnostic tools on their own but they can help to clarify for you & your clinician if dissociation is something you’re experiencing as this can change the therapeutic interventions that are going to be most helpful for you.
Dissociation & anxiety
Dissociation can be related to anxiety. When experiencing dissociation it can work to temporarily relieve overwhelming feelings and experiences such as memories we don’t particularly want to remember or temporarily gives us some reprieve from feeling ashamed, anxious, or panicked. So when our brain has interpreted that anxiety itself is a threat, and we believe that there is nothing that we can do to stop it, no action we can take, our nervous system can respond by dissociating to cope. It essentially is a built in avoidance mechanism, temporarily being quite effective, but in the long term can be quite unhelpful especially if our brain starts deeming it to be our best coping mechanism and over uses it.
How to stop dissociating?
Learning what triggers you personally to dissociate, what reduces the likelihood of it happening, and what you can do when you realise that you have dissociated are helpful ways to cope with dissociating. In addition, establishing greater awareness and connection with your body and surroundings have provided a resilience factor that can reduce the chances of dissociation.
A final note about dissociation in therapy
Dissociation can interfere with the effectiveness of therapy even if it isn’t your main concern coming in. As such, if it is something you’re experiencing in a moderate-severe amount I would recommend bringing it to your clinician’s attention so that this can be considered in treatment planning, and so measures can be put in place during sessions to ensure you stay grounded, and present during therapy in turn increasing the effectiveness of treatment towards your therapeutic goals.
Author: Samantha Sheppard, B Psych (Hons).
Samantha is a registered psychologist with experience working with children and adolescents (and their families), young adults and adults. Samantha empowers others with their mental health using a non-judgemental, compassionate approach, and particularly resonates with the social and emotional wellbeing framework.
To make an appointment with Samantha Sheppard try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.