What is Dissociation?

Dissociation happens on a spectrum, and it is not a concept most people are familiar with. Some people describe themselves as having a tendency to zone out or feel numb when in reality, they might be dissociating. The symptoms of dissociation can be explored as part of the many talking therapies we offer because dissociation can range from a normal experience of daydreaming to the more severe and extreme experiences such as losing track of time or awareness of physical surroundings.

Dissociation experiences

Most people have dissociated at some point in their lives, with women statistically more likely to experience dissociative symptoms. A lot of people experience mild dissociation and forms of this include daydreaming, or highway hypnosis where we lose track of time driving on a motorway or even getting lost in a film or book. Dissociation can be highly distressing for people if it is more severe or happening regularly. A person may not look distressed but internally the experience can affect a persons sense of identity and perception of time. Dissociation is one way the mind copes with too much stress and can happen during or after a traumatic event. It is therefore seen by trauma therapists as a natural way for the mind to cope and can be related to difficult childhood experiences, chronic trauma, PTSD and other life factors that can be discussed with your therapist alongside any symptoms you think you may have.

Feeling removed from the environment

Dissociation is related to feeling removed from the environment – some sufferers might describe feeling hollow inside, as if they are not connected to reality. One way to understand dissociation is to think of all the times you’ve acted ‘on autopilot’ as when you dissociate, this is how your body reacts. Dissociation presents as a more unfamiliar feeling however, as though you are watching from a distance and merely observing yourself rather than having experiences.

Dissociation can be severe

For some people, it can feel scary because if you have severe dissociation symptoms, you are unsure of what’s real and what’s not. Sometimes, you were acting so on autopilot that you arrive at a place without remembering how you got there. It can also lead to losing time as you are out of your body for so long that you feel out of place. Dissociation can last for several hours or it can continue for days, weeks and months if it is presenting as severe.

Dissociation can feel different for everybody

Dissociation can feel different for everybody. It can be having difficulty remembering information or finding it hard to keep track of time. Some people may do something out of character, or feel like the world is unreal and can even create a sense of fogginess. Some people describe looking at themselves as if from the outside whereas others describe a sense of shift or change in their identity. It can lead to a difficult in defining who you are.

Why does dissociation occur?

Dissociation is a response to stress and feelings of overwhelm, and it can also be linked to past trauma. Sometimes it presents as a symptom of other mental health problems like PTSD, anxiety, schizophrenia, BPD, bipolar, and depression but it also exists separately as Dissociative Identity Disorder – formerly known as multiple personality disorder. This condition is characterised by the person feeling unsure about their identity as they experience taking on a new identity or several identities and voices in their head that all feel real. This is a pronounced condition where the person cannot remember their own personal information or what happened at all in recent days. This disorder should not be taken lightly and will need a diagnosis from a trained and experience mental health professional.

While it may sound similar, it’s a very different experience to mindfulness because observing your thoughts is intentional whereas dissociation isn’t. Grounding techniques can help by allowing you to intervene in ways that are more helpful – perhaps by using some CBT tips you’ve picked up from prior therapy sessions.

If dissociation is becoming a problem for you there is a way forward. Therapy can help to asses your level of dissociation  – mild, moderate or severe, and also help you to learn new ways of managing these experiences as well as helping you to understand the root cause of them.

Other Types of Dissociation

There are other types of dissociation you might have heard of before:

  • Depersonalisation is when you feel like you are watching yourself from a third party perspective – disconnected from your body, and just observing your emotions.
  • Derealisation occurs when you believe the world around is isn’t real, as though everything is lifeless.

These two types can be connected or exist separately, and they can last for indeterminate periods of time.

  • Dissociative Amnesia is characterised by not being able to remember details surrounding a traumatic event or event(s), or information about your past and what makes you who you are.

Contact Surrey Psychology to talk about Dissociation

If you think you have any symptoms of dissociation that are interfering with your everyday life or might be severe, our talking therapies are confidentially delivered to secure your privacy. Get in touch with Clinical Psychologist Dr Gurpreet Kaur today by filling out our online enquiry form.

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Dr Gurpreet Kaur, Chartered Clinical Psychologist & EMDR Practitioner

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