What is dissociation
mental health

Mental Health Monday: What Is Dissociation?

To get back into the swing of posting on this blog more regularly, I thought it might be fun to try out Mental Health Mondays, weekly posts about our brains and the ways they can sometimes go a bit sideways. This week, I’m going to write a bit about dissociation. What is dissociation? Why does it happen? What does it feel like? What’s the difference between dissociation and dissociative disorders? Let’s talk about it!

What Is Dissociation?

Okay, let’s start simple: what is dissociation? It’s not necessarily a disorder on its own; rather, it’s an experience. When someone dissociates, their mind sort of detaches from the reality surrounding them. This can happen in many ways. There’s general dissociation, but there are also more specific forms, like derealization, where the world around you seems unreal, or depersonalization, where you as a person seem unreal.

That may sound scary, but like most things with mental health, there’s a spectrum. In extreme cases, it is possible to experience dissociative amnesia, where the person detaches so completely that they don’t remember what they did while dissociated, but it’s also possible to experience very mild dissociation. Have you ever driven home from work, only to end up in your driveway without any real recollection of how you got there? That is a mild form of dissociation.

Even though dissociation can be a symptom of mental health issues and disorders, it can also be a very normal part of every day life, so if you’re reading this and realizing “…oh crap, I do that all the time,” there’s no need to panic.

What Does Dissociation Feel Like?

Still not sure if you experience dissociation? That’s understandable. The definition is pretty vague. When I first learned about dissociation in my psychology classes, I didn’t realize how often I experienced it because no one really described how it felt. Obviously I can’t describe all forms of dissociation, because I haven’t experienced them all, but here’s what it’s like for me:

Dissociation feels like you’re floating just slightly above where your body is. It feels like maybe your hands are just doll hands and not really your hands. It feels like the world is blanketed in soft, fluffy cotton and you have simply retreated to a clearer place in your mind. Dissociation feels like there is thick aquarium glass between your eyes and the actual world and maybe you’re drowning but you can’t quite tell. It feels like you are ever so slightly out of sync with everything, like you’re a video that keeps buffering so that the audio and visual are just a little bit off. Dissociation feels like you have to squint at everything in order to see it clearly because you’re so far away, so retreated into your head. It feels like being at the bottom of a swimming pool even when you’re sitting in class or at the dinner table. Sometimes it feels calming, sometimes it feels scary, but honestly, it never really feels like anything, because you’re detached from feeling things. You aren’t numbed to your feelings, just…detached from them. Like they’re happening, just not quite to you. Almost, but not quite.

Why Do We Dissociate?

Dissociation is a form of protection. We dissociate when our minds need to protect us from some aspect of our reality. When the real world is presenting us with a problem that we are unable to solve, our brains protect us by absorbing us into our mental world instead, or shutting down completely.

Often, this happens because of trauma, but it doesn’t have to be something so extreme. I’ve had therapists suggest that one reason I dissociate so often is due to boredom. With nothing to stimulate me sufficiently in the real world, I learned to retreat into my mind instead.

Once our brains have learned that they can protect us through dissociating, the dissociation can continue even after the threat has disappeared. So if you experienced childhood trauma where a caregiver often yelled, and you dissociated to protect yourself from feeling the full terror of those experiences, you may continue to dissociate even after you grow up and leave that caregiver’s house, especially when others yell or even raise their voice slightly.

When Does Dissociation Become a Problem?

Dissociation starts out as a way to protect us from a problem, but sometimes it actually becomes the problem. Once we no longer need protected, once the source of trauma is gone, our brains can continue to dissociate in ways that interfere with our lives and wellbeing, and that’s when regular dissociation can become a dissociative disorder or a symptom of a different mental illness.

There are three dissociative disorders outlined in the DSM-V, the most recent version of the diagnostic criteria used by the vast majority of mental health professionals. The first is dissociative amnesia, which is when a person experiences abnormal memory loss that can’t be explained by a medical condition. The second condition is depresionalization/derealization disorder, which is when a person consistently experiences one or both of the previously mentioned specific forms of dissociation. Finally, there is dissociative identity disorder, which is when a person experiences different identities when they dissociate.

Even if a person doesn’t have one of these dissociative disorders, it’s still possible for their dissociation to be a serious problem. Dissociation can be one of many symptoms in a different disorder. For instance, it is incredibly common with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and it can also be a symptom of depression, panic disorder, and other mental illnesses.

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