Dissociation is a psychological phenomenon where a person feels disconnected from reality- or from themselves. Dissociation occurs on a spectrum, ranging from mild to severe.
Spacing out and daydreaming are common examples of mild dissociation. You may have noticed that they’re often triggered by mild discomfort such as boredom and information overwhelm.
The mind going blank is another example of dissociation. It’s triggered by the painful feelings of fear and anxiety that one may experience while giving a speech or talking to a crush.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have severe dissociation that is triggered by severe trauma. For example, in dissociative identity disorder, a person’s identity dissociates into two or more separate identities.
What triggers dissociation?
Dissociation is the mind’s way to disconnect from a painful reality. Humans are strongly motivated to avoid pain. Dissociation is a defense mechanism the mind uses to avoid getting overwhelmed by negative emotions, such as anxiety and fear.
As such, any type of trauma may trigger dissociation, such as:
- Natural disasters
- Military combat
Dissociation is a common symptom of not only dissociative disorders but also anxiety and mood disorders.1
While mild dissociations tend to be harmless, severe dissociations- especially the ones that are chronic, can have significant negative consequences.
Once a traumatic event has occurred, dissociation can linger in the psyche of the victims. People have experienced dissociation for minutes, hours, days, months, and even years.
Triggers that remind a trauma victim of their past trauma bring to the surface painful memories that can also trigger dissociation. Dissociation has this spillover effect whereby it gets triggered by all fearful or anxiety-provoking situations.
Dissociation can thus become the go-to coping mechanism of the mind once it’s triggered by trauma. Nothing in the victim’s life remains the same anymore. It’s as if a switch gets turned on in their minds that keeps disconnecting them from reality, or from themselves.
A quick way to experience dissociation is to stare at something for long. Eventually, the mind cannot tolerate the discomfort of perceiving the same stimuli repeatedly, leading to dissociation.
I sometimes experience dissociation when I’m looking at myself in the mirror. I get this temporary ‘sense’ that I’m an outside entity occupying my body.
Types of dissociative experiences
There are two types of dissociative experiences:
- Depersonalization = Disconnecting from oneself
- Derealization = Disconnecting from the surroundings
In depersonalization, the person feels detached from their own body, perceptions, actions, and emotions. People who’ve experienced depersonalization sometimes feel they’re floating above their bodies.
On very rare occasions, a person not only perceives but also interacts with their ‘double’.2
Other depersonalization experiences include:
Feelings of yourself being absent or unreal, Intense fear, distorted sense of time, breathlessness, blurry vision, feeling physically and emotionally numb, bodily actions that seem to happen on their own, feeling like you’re dragging your body around (the spectrum of depersonalization)
In derealization, a person feels disconnected from their surroundings and other people to the point that the world around them seems unreal. Some say the world feels dull and grey.
I once experienced derealization during a flood that submerged almost all areas around our locality. As I looked at the roofs of submerged houses, I felt I’d been transported to another, fake world.
Derealization is a form of denial of the current reality. The current reality is too painful for the mind to process- so the mind distorts it.
How to stop dissociation
If you experience mild dissociations from time to time, you have no cause for concern. Dissociation becomes a problem only when it’s severe and chronic. As you can imagine, being constantly ‘offline’ can impair all areas of one’s life.
Following are the different ways to stop dissociation:
1. Grounding techniques
These techniques are designed to get you back into your head and into your body. This is usually done by engaging one or more senses. Examples of grounding techniques include:
- Looking at something visually appealing
- Tasting something tasty
- Describing the sounds that you’re hearing
- Touching something hot or cold
- Smelling something strong-smelling
- Moving your body
When you engage your senses, you pull yourself back into your head. This allows you to break free of a dissociation session.
We’ve all done some grounding at some point. Say we’re eating with someone, and they seem to have taken a trip down memory lane. We then engage their visual sensory system by waving our hands in front of their eyes.
2. Remembering the function of dissociation
When people experience severe dissociation, they get scared and confused because they haven’t experienced anything like it. Reminding yourself of the purpose of dissociation is a good way to cope with dissociation. You let it do its work. When it’s done, it’ll leave.
The tricky thing about coping with dissociation is that you’re coping with a coping mechanism. When you understand the purpose of dissociation, you fight it less.
Instead of fighting dissociation, you see it as a signal that there’s some pain in your life that you need to face. Some unresolved issue needs resolving. Some unfaced fear needs facing.
Facing pain provides us with valuable information about ourselves. It tells us what we need to fix in our lives. Dissociation’s purpose is to avoid pain, no matter how useful facing that pain might be. Let it do its work. You can dig deep into the pain later.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”– Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
3. Processing unprocessed trauma
Trauma tends to linger in our psyche because it remains unprocessed. Healthy processing of trauma means making sense of it so you can make peace with it and move on.
Of course, this isn’t a piece of cake. Gaining knowledge and seeking help from competent professionals can be immensely helpful.
When you heal your trauma and can put your past behind you, you can start to feel safe again. Dissociation can’t coexist with safety and comfort. It’ll go away when your mind no longer feels the need to protect you.
4. Developing a strong sense of self
If you’re a regular reader here, you know I’ve talked about the importance of a strong sense of self a gazillion times. Dissociation fragments our self: sometimes temporarily and sometimes for a long time.
How quickly your self re-integrates will depend on how resilient it is. If you have a fragile sense of self, it’ll be easy to disintegrate.
Dissociation is the initial stage of compartmentalization. When you dissociate, your mind begins the process of creating a separate identity with a separate memory. The mind tries to compartmentalize the painful memories into this newly created memory bank so that ‘your’ memory doesn’t have to deal with them.
Therefore, dissociation leads to disturbances in the self and disrupts the healthy development of the self.3
This is one of the reasons why people who experience dissociation and trauma also have low self-esteem. They’re not clear about who they are and what they want.
When you have a strong sense of self, you can better resist the dissociating forces of dissociation.
- Boysan, M., Goldsmith, R. E., Çavuş, H., Kayri, M., & Keskin, S. (2009). Relations among anxiety, depression, and dissociative symptoms: the influence of abuse subtype. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 10(1), 83-101.
- Cardefia, E. (1994). The domain of dissociation. Dissociation: Clinical and theoretical perspectives, 15-31.
- Carlson, E. A., Yates, T. M., & Sroufe, L. A. (2009). Dissociation and development of the self.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve published one book and authored 400+ articles on this blog (started in 2014) that have garnered over 4.5 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.