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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 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
An example of dissociating from one’s emotions & experiences
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?
Childhood trauma & dissociation
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.
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
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.
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