Do you ever experience any of the following?

  • Spacing out or daydreaming
  • Becoming ‘glazed over’
  • Detaching or disconnecting from yourself or the world around you
  • Feeling outside of your body, or like your body doesn’t belong to you
  • Feeling like the world around you is unreal
  • Getting so absorbed into a TV show or movie that you’re unaware of everything else
  • Remembering a past event so vividly that it feels like you’re reliving it
  • Struggling to remember if you actual did something, or just thought about doing it
  • Having gaps in your life where you don’t remember anything
  • Feeling like you’re just observing your emotions
  • Seeing the world as, ‘foggy,’ or, ‘lifeless’
  • Feeling like you don’t recognize yourself in the mirror
  • Switching between different parts of your personality

If you’ve ever experienced any of these, then you may have been experiencing dissociation.

What is dissociation?

Put simply, dissociation is when we disconnect from the here and now. We can disconnect emotionally, physically, or mentally. Dissociation falls along a spectrum from mild to severe. Daydreaming or, ‘checking out,’ for a moment is something that we all do to some degree, and can be completely normal. For some of us though, our brains will use dissociation to help us cope with something we want to avoid; it is our brains’ way of protecting us from being overwhelmed. We want to thank our brains for protecting us, but seek out support if it’s leading to problems concerning staying engaged with life.

What causes dissociation?

Our brains dissociate as a natural response to an overwhelming or traumatic event that we cannot control. It can be a one-time experience, or a habitual coping strategy for recurring trauma or abuse. After the overwhelming event(s) have ended, our brains might still dissociate in response to triggers, which are usually sensory (a sight, sound, taste, smell, or touch) that remind your brain of the overwhelming event from the past. If a trigger leads to experiencing a flashback, you might feel like you are reliving the traumatic event in the present. Flashbacks can cause some of us to switch to another part of our identity.

Sometimes, we dissociate to help us calm down, focus, or as part of a religious or cultural practice. Some people experience dissociation as part of a mental health diagnosis, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar, or borderline personality disorder. Some people might experience dissociation in response to drinking alcohol, using medication, or coming off certain medications.

Are there different kinds of dissociation?

Yes. To help us understand people’s unique experiences, psychiatrists have grouped dissociation into types. Individual experiences can range from mild to severe. The types include dissociative amnesia (memory-related), derealisation (world feels unreal), depersonalization (people/self feel unreal), dissociative fugue (forgetting identity), identity alteration (shifts in identity expression), and identity confusion (different people inside self).

Getting Help For Dissociation

If you notice you use dissociation to avoid dealing with negative feelings and triggered memories, it might be something to explore with support. If it goes too far, it can become problematic for some of us if not treated. It is common not to realize you are dissociating while it is happening, especially in the beginning. We need another supportive person to help. The primary tool your therapist will use to deal with it is grounding, which helps bring you back to the here and now. He or she might work on regaining eye contact with you, label the dissociation so you can recognize it, and help you connect to your body and immediate surroundings through your five senses.

One of our therapists would be more than willing to journey with you through your experience with dissociation. Give us a call today!

Written by therapist Jessica Olson