What is Dissociation?

mild symptoms of dissociation. Emotional numbness. Emotional disconnect. Dissociation from emotions. Feeling emotionally numb.

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes

You feel emotionally numb. You are disconnected from yourself. You dissociate from reality. There are gaps in your memory & thought processes. You detach from your identity. If you experience any of these, you could be dissociating. Read this article to learn more about this psychological coping mechanism.

What is dissociation?

Dissociation is a psychological protective mechanism that usually happens outside our awareness. It is a detachment that our brains engage in to protect us from whatever threatens our psychological safety.
 
It involves a disconnection or detachment from one’s thoughts, feelings, memories, or sense of identity. It can occur in response to overwhelming stress, trauma, or other adverse experiences.
 
Dissociation can take different forms. For instance, you can feel disconnected from yourself or the environment. You can experience a sense of unreality as if you were watching yourself from afar. You feel like you’re losing track of time. Or, you have gaps in your memory.
 

Dissociation occurs on a continuum with varying degrees of severity, duration, and pervasiveness.

Dissociation is more common than we think

In its mild form, dissociation is more common than we think. We all have moments where we space out and feel somewhat disconnected during stressful situations. Dissociation can be a healthy and adaptive response to stress in some cases.

Examples of mild dissociation

  • Feeling emotionally numb or emotionally disconnected (dissociation from emotions)
  • Mindlessly scrolling on social media
  • Feeling “checked out” after a long day at work
  • Driving on autopilot and suddenly realizing that you’re already at the front door getting your keys

mild symptoms of dissociation. Emotional numbness. Emotional disconnect. Dissociation from emotions. Feeling emotionally numb.

An example of dissociating from one’s emotions & experiences

Farther down the spectrum, someone’s brain might dissociate when overwhelmed to protect themselves from upsetting emotions. For instance, a person discovers his father has been in a serious car accident. Upon hearing the news, he momentarily feels no feelings, doesn’t recognize his father’s name, and feels almost like he is in a movie scene.
 
In this example, the man dissociated from his emotions – he had no feelings for a brief moment. He disconnected from his reality; he couldn’t recognize his father’s name, and things suddenly felt surreal.
 

Dissociation – when it's more than mild

The other end of the spectrum includes dissociative experiences that are intense, persistent, and disruptive to a person’s functioning and well-being. It can involve a complete or partial disconnection from one’s thoughts, emotions, or sense of identity, and may cause a sense of detachment from reality or a loss of awareness of one’s surroundings.

Someone who experiences this may not have known how they spent their day because they are so detached from their experiences. They can feel frequently “checked out.” They mindlessly engage in activities like binge eating, endless scrolling on social media without being fully engaged in the content, etc in order to “feel something” because otherwise they’re emotionally numb.

This dissociative way of being and living can occur so much that it’s hard to keep track of their time and goals.

In more severe cases, this split between a person and their emotions/experiences/sensations can become so prominent that separate identities exist and emerge at different times. This is called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). While this diagnosis is complex and controversial, there seems to be some neuroanatomical evidence for the existence of DID .

Signs and symptoms of dissociation

You feel emotionally numb.

You are disconnected from yourself.

You dissociate from reality.

There are gaps in your memory & thought processes.

You detach from your identity.

You are disconnected from yourself

  • You feel as though you’re watching yourself from the outside
  • You see yourself doing things and engaging with others but don’t feel you’re the one making that happen
  • You lose control of your body movements
  • Physical sensations are muted. For example, during sex

You feel emotionally numb

  • You are detached from your feelings
  • “I can’t feel anything” – apathy, loss of feelings
  • Muted emotions –
    For example, you don’t feel angry, or the full extent of your anger, when someone you care about disappoints you until moments or days after the situation ends.
  • Compromised emotional memory – you recall what you heard and saw around you during an upsetting event but can’t seem to get in touch with how you felt.

You dissociate from reality

  • Life feels unreal, like you’re in a dream or a movie
  • Feeling as though you are watching things happen around you
  • Disconnected from the environment around you
  • You’re “spaced out” or “checked out.”

You detach from your identity

  • You don’t have a sense of who you are

  • You might lose track of particular aspects of yourself (e.g. your race, current age, interests, career, etc.) For example, you might suddenly feel bizarre when you notice that you’re in an “adult” body because you feel a different age inside

  • In more severe cases, multiple identities and personalities take control at different times.

There are gaps in your memory & thought processes

  • Your brain feels foggy or cloudy.
  • Your mind goes blank.
  • It’s hard to access or control mental functions or behaviors.
  • You don’t remember a certain period of your life.
  • You forget parts of a situation that are particularly uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking.
  • You have no conscious awareness (or only some) of the dissociated memories, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Why do I dissociate?

Dissociation is your brain’s coping mechanism to help you psychologically survive difficult situations. When your brain does not have the mental resources to cope with a difficult or traumatic experience, it can resort to disconnecting or dissociating from aspects of the incident to protect you from feeling more overwhelmed. For instance, if you don’t consciously remember a painful memory, you wouldn’t have to understand and feel the full elaboration of that sadness, disappointment, fear, etc.
 
If these traumatic and overwhelming experiences repeatedly happen over a period of time, the wall between you and what is dissociated can become stronger and more longstanding.
This can include dissociated emotions, thoughts, sensations, and experiences related to the trauma.
 
For children, dissociation is one mechanism that allows them to psychologically survive and remain with abusive caregivers, whom they are entirely dependent on; they cannot fight or escape from the situation. Going through the crisis without feeling painful emotions is at least more bearable than living through these traumatic experiences and the accompanying feelings at their full intensity.
 

Childhood trauma & dissociation

Childhood is a delicate time of growth and malleability. During this sensitive time, we depend entirely on our caregiver(s) while our brains and bodies develop. Whatever happens to us can shape the way our brains develop. We learn ways to cope, or not cope, with emotions. We develop ideas about ourselves. We form a sense of the environment as safe, unsafe, and everything in between.
 
Because of the sensitivity of this period, childhood abuse and neglect can lead to long-term changes in the developing brain, which can include developing dissociation as a coping mechanism.
 
Emotional brokenness from childhood trauma
The simultaneous experience of desiring to be accepted, protected, and loved by the very person who is also creating a sense of unsafety that words cannot yet describe can be a tremendously conflicting and complicated experience for a child to comprehend.
 
It can be easier to dissociate from either the desire to be cared for or feeling unsafe so that these two seemingly conflicting and painful realities don’t have to exist together.
 
Dissociative disorders correlate with the highest frequency of childhood abuse and neglect compared to all other psychiatric disorders. Studies have shown that childhood emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and neglect play a crucial role in the development of dissociative symptoms.
 
If you think that you may have developed dissociative symptoms due to childhood trauma, even if this trauma doesn’t seem “traumatic enough” on the surface, I encourage you to schedule a consultation with us so we can begin looking at this together with more clarity. 

Is dissociation a coping mechanism? When does dissociation become problematic?

Dissociation is often considered a coping mechanism we use to manage overwhelming or traumatic experiences. Dissociation is a process where people may feel detached from their thoughts, emotions, or surroundings. It can also involve feeling like one’s sense of self is not fully connected or present in the moment.

Dissociation can occur in response to a wide range of experiences, including trauma, stress, anxiety, and other types of psychological distress. It may also occur in response to physical pain or illness.

While dissociation can be a helpful way to cope with overwhelming experiences, it can also be a symptom of several mental health conditions, such as dissociative disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Depending on the frequency, longevity, and intensity of dissociation, it can begin to interfere with our lives. 

Is dissociation and emotional blunting a healthy coping mechanism?

Dissociating may have helped us survive those traumatizing events. Still, when our body and brain continue to respond as if we are in a traumatic event even after it is over, it can interfere with our careers, relationships, friendships, and overall personal and emotional growth.

Blanking out interferes with doing well at school or being fully productive at work. It can hinder us from fully engaging in the here and now with friends or loved ones. It can lead us to passively and unintentionally remain in toxic friendships or relationships, such as the Drama Triangle dynamics. Or, we might continue going with the flow to avoid “rocking the boat” in risky situations.

Dissociative symptoms can potentially disrupt every area of psychological functioning. Depending on the severity, anything that reminds our brains of the trauma can begin to trigger different levels of dissociation.

It’s important to note that dissociation can be a complex and multifaceted experience, and not everyone who experiences dissociation is using it as a healthy coping mechanism. If you’re experiencing dissociation or have concerns about your mental health, it’s important to speak with a qualified mental health professional who can provide support and guidance.

Treatment for dissociation

If you haven’t been in therapy before, the idea of seeing a therapist to treat your dissociation can feel nebulous. One of the goals of our work together would be to integrate the different parts of you that are dissociated.
 
What does integrate mean? It looks different for each individual. Humans are complex, and there isn’t a one size fits all approach or a script we follow to address dissociation. However, here are some of the things you might work on if you were in treatment with our therapists.
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We can collaborate together to understand how you dissociate and when it starts to happen. We will explore when this protective mechanism began in your life and how it protected you at the time. For instance, what feelings, thoughts, experiences, sensations, etc. did it protect you from?
 
We can begin to understand what triggers your dissociation in the present and why this mechanism is still being used. Along the way, when it will be helpful, we can discuss coping mechanisms that you can use when you begin to feel dissociated.
Ultimately, by understanding the core struggles underlying your dissociation and addressing some of the above, the dissociated parts of you can “communicate” with each other, which results in you feeling less fragmented and disintegrated, thus experiencing a more cohesive sense of self.
 
It does take time, but specialized therapy can help decrease the frequency and intensity of dissociative symptoms as you feel an increased sense of psychological safety. It can be scary or confusing to experience dissociation. But know that you’re not powerless. With quality treatment and time, we can help you integrate these different parts so that you can live a more fulfilling life.

Summary

Dissociation is a psychological protective mechanism that our brains engage in to protect us from whatever threatens our psychological safety. It is a detachment that occurs in response to overwhelming stress, trauma, or other adverse experiences.

Dissociation can take different forms, including feeling disconnected from oneself or the environment, experiencing a sense of unreality, losing track of time, and having gaps in memory. It occurs on a continuum with varying degrees of severity, duration, and pervasiveness. While dissociation can be a healthy and adaptive response to stress in some cases, dissociative experiences that are intense, persistent, and disruptive to a person’s functioning and well-being can interfere with one’s life. In more severe cases, the split between a person and their emotions/experiences/sensations can become so prominent that separate identities exist and emerge at different times, which is called Dissociative Identity Disorder.

If your dissociative symptoms interfere with your quality of life, it’s important to get treatment from a therapist who specializes in this area.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Priscilla is a therapist, psychoanalyst, and the practice owner of Imagine Emotional Wellness, a culturally responsive online therapy practice in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC. 

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