Dissociation- What is it?

Dissociation falls onto a spectrum as everyone experiences dissociation. Reflect on the times your mind went elsewhere as you are driving or you had to reread a paragraph in a book, this is dissociation. Dissociation is a detachment from emotions, your body or your environment. It is the opposite of being “present” in the moment.

It is a trauma response from experience and a necessity for protection and survival. For instance, think about a soldier who are wounded and have to block out their pain in order to save their soldiers or even a “flow state” such as exercising, drawing, or journaling may allow us to disconnect from time and our surroundings. On another end of the spectrum, dissociation is an emergency survival strategy during intense pain or trauma. It can cut you off from what you are experiencing, as people commonly report feeling “numb” in place of pain or panic that would otherwise be overwhelming. Again, dissociation is necessary for survival in the short-term but can no longer feel adaptive or helpful in the long-term. Research has found that the initial “tapping out” of an experience of reality can postpone the psychological pain, leading to worsening symptoms later on. Survivors of abuse or complex trauma may continue to dissociate in times of stress, strong emotion or perceived danger. When dissociation occurs even when the threat does not exist, for instance, when the survivor child grows up and an abuser is no longer a threat—dissociation is no longer a form of protection and starts hurting us. It may leave someone disengaged, detached, and potentially more vulnerable to danger.

What does it feel like?

There are two most common form of dissociation: depersonalization and derealization. Again, both exist on a spectrum.

Depersonalization is feeling disconnected or alienated from your body. Sometimes, it can feel difficult to recognize yourself in a mirror or like your body does not belong to you. It can feel like an “out of body” experience. People commonly report “emotional numbing” as well, as in when things objectively would elicit an intense emotion people feel “numb or flat”.

Derealization is feeling disconnected from your environment or surroundings, it is like being in a crowd of people and reportedly feeling like you are watching it from a third party. People will commonly report the world or their environment looks “fake” or they are seeing it from “the outside looking in”.

For more reading on Dissociation:

The Body Keeps the Score- Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.

Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation- Suzette Boon, Kathy Steele, Onno Van Der Hart

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