What is dissociation?
Dissociation, sometimes also referred to as disassociation, is a term commonly used in psychology that refers to a detachment from your surroundings, and/or physical and emotional experiences. Dissociation is a defense mechanism that stems from trauma, inner conflict, and other forms of stress, or even boredom.
Dissociation is understood on a continuum in terms of its intensity, and as non-pathological or pathological in regard of its type and effects. An example of non-pathological dissociation is daydreaming.
From here on we will talk about pathological dissociation.
Some examples of pathological dissociation are the following:
Feeling that your sense of self is not real (depersonalization)
Feeling that the world is unreal (derealization)
Memory loss (amnesia)
Forgetting identity or assuming a new self (fugue)
Separate streams of consciousness, identity, and self (dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personality disorder)
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder
Dissociation is closely tied to stressful states and situations. If a person has an inner conflict, they may start dissociating when thinking about it. Or if they are terrified of social situations, they may experience dissociation when around people.
Some people report severe dissociation and panic attacks after doing certain drugs. Dissociation can sometimes occur when we experience distortion in or an impairment of our senses, for instance, while having a migraine, tinnitus, light sensitivity, and so on.
Trauma and dissociation
Dissociation is a common response to trauma. The experience of being present and in the moment when we are severely abused and traumatized and feel powerless is incredibly painful. This is when our psyche self-protects and makes us disconnect from what’s happening to us in order to make it more tolerable to endure.
That’s why many abuse victims, especially those who suffered sexual abuse, say that they felt like they were watching themselves be abused from the third person’s perspective and it seemed like they were watching a movie rather than being a participant.
Since dissociation is often an aftereffect of trauma, it can routinely reoccur until the emotions related to the trauma are resolved. Regardless of how often you experience it, dissociation can be incredibly unpleasant, terrifying, and debilitating.
Some people describe dissociation as their most horrifying experience. Moreover, experiencing dissociation can create new symptoms or aggravate other underlying problems, and in doing so, make the person’s mental condition even worse.
Childhood trauma and dissociation
Commonly, dissociation experienced as an adult is rooted in one’s childhood.
Since a child is dependent on their caregivers and their brain is still developing, they are unable to deal with their trauma by themselves. However, their caregivers are often unable or unwilling to comfort the child and help them overcome it without severe aftereffects.
Not only that, the child’s caregivers may even be the ones who traumatize the child. It’s not to say that it always happens out of spite, but even when done with good intentions or out of ignorance, the effects on the child’s psyche are as they are.
So what does a child do when they experience stress and trauma? Since they can’t resolve it by themselves, they dissociate. This usually occurs early and routinely. Not every trauma is “big” and evident, but even things that don’t seem like a “big trauma” can be very traumatic to a child.
So, we experience many traumas and “microtraumas” as children. And since a common reaction to trauma is dissociation, we dissociate. And over time, two main dissociative behaviors are the result. One, we may suffer from episodes of dissociation (generally, PTSD and C-PTSD).
And two, we learn to deal with emotional distress by participating in dissociative behaviors, such as addiction to food, sex, drugs, TV, the Internet, attention, sports, and anything else that helps us repress our painful emotions.
Moreover, a child can’t attribute responsibility for their trauma to their caregiver since they need them to survive, so they learn to blame themselves for it, which creates a myriad of other problems, but we won’t talk about those in this article.
People’s stories about dissociation
Recently on my website’s Facebook page, I shared two posts about dissociation. One was a picture with a quote explaining what it is (added here), and the other was a quote from my book Human Development and Trauma:
“Many abused children dissociate and unconsciously warp their perception of reality in order to survive. Naturally this requires that they justify the abusive behavior of their caregivers.”
Under those posts, some people shared their experiences and thoughts regarding dissociation, so I would like to add them to this article.
One person writes this:
“I permanently dissociated, my development was arrested at 13 years when my aunt accused me of trying to seduce her husband who was lusting for me. I spent most of my adult year feeling like a 13-year-old. Healing has allowed for a shift from that state to feeling more adult-like.”
This person shares their dissociation experience starting as early as 3 years old:
“I remember leaving my own body at night from the age of 3ish as my parents would be beating each other to death downstairs. I grew up thinking I really could fly. I only learned of disassociation last year.”
Another person says this:
“Sleep has always been an issue. If I did manage to sleep it was full of vivid horrid dreams. I had two regular dreams all my life. I was always a big reader. Escaping into books I was guaranteed a happy ending. I had to. I was exposed to awful things as far back as I can recall.”
For this person, as for all of us, repressed trauma manifested itself in nightmares:
“I remember that every time something traumatizing happened in my family, right before sleep in my bed I tried to convince myself that It didn’t happen and after that I used to have nightmares of being chased by a horrible monster in an abandoned factory or something. Now after a lot of studying I realized that it was my brain entering REM mode in order to storage the traumatic experience deep in my subconscious so I can consciously forget about it.”
This person feels dissociation when having an aural migraine, which I can confirm from my personal experience too:
“I don’t want to reduce this by any means because this may not be seen as traumatic to others however, this happens to me when I get migraines. I don’t know if it is part of the migraine symptoms or if I am disassociating because they hurt so much for such a long period. I feel far away, muffled, floaty kinda dreamlike. I respond slower cause I feel that people are not talking directly to me. My speech is slow and I feel like I am watching a TV show or like if I am drunk/stoned. It’s weird. This happened throughout my life because I have migraine with aura/fainting spells. It’s a scary uncontrolled feeling.”
And this person’s comment explains very well how dissociation is both terrifying and necessary to cope with enormous emotional and psychological pain:
“The most unreal experience of my life, literally. Would never want to experience it again. As distressing as it was, it was a relief as well. The feeling of being outside of oneself and everyone else, the inability to connect to reality, is the most distressing, but the inability to do that gives you a break from the current trauma, and there’s relief in that.”
Dr. Jeffrey Levine a Hartford Therapist Licensed Psychologist with over 40 years of clinical experience. He specializes in treating adults in individual psychotherapy, with expertise in trauma focused hypnosis, energy transformational healing and Internal Family Systems.