What is dissociation?

The Who, What, When, Where & Why of Dissociation

Have you ever zoned out while driving a car? Or completely checked out of a lesson in school? These are mild instances of dissociation, and while it is a normal human function to detach from reality briefly, chronic dissociation can cause severe mental anguish.

Dissociation is known as a lack of connection between your mind, identity, and body. It is best described as feeling disconnected from your thoughts, feelings, memories, and surroundings. It can also affect sense of identity and perception of time.

Who experiences dissociation?

There is no one specific age, race, or socioeconomic that suffers from dissociation more than another. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), "up to 75% of people experience at least one depersonalization/derealization episode in their lives, with only 2% meeting the full criteria for chronic episodes". Women are also more likely to experience these episodes than men.

It can also occur when dealing with trauma. Therefore, an individual diagnosed with PTSD or someone who has faced physical, mental, or sexual trauma may experience dissociative episodes as a coping mechanism.

What are the symptoms of dissociation?

It looks different for each individual, however, there are a few common symptoms that may arise.

  • Significant memory loss: unable to remember chunks of time or specific people and events
  • Out-of-body experiences: this can often feel like watching yourself in a movie from a third-person perspective
  • Mental health conditions: depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts
  • Sense of detachment: emotional numbness
  • Lack of identity: feeling disconnected from who you are as a person
When does dissociation occur?

There is no concrete answer for why someone experiences a dissociative episode, as it varies per individual. It can often occur after a traumatic experience, therefore, experiencing any triggers or reminders of that event can send an individual into a dissociative state. Feelings of stress can also fuel an episode.

Where does dissociation occur?

It can happen anywhere, but if the condition is a result of a traumatic experience, certain physical spaces or places may trigger a dissociative episode. For example, if the trauma included a crowded space, an individual may dissociate when in a crowded airport or train station. It's important to seek help for PTSD in order to identify these triggers and learn to cope healthily.

Why does dissociation happen?

As mentioned throughout this article, dissociation is often a trauma response. When an individual experiences trauma, the brain automatically goes into defense mode as a form of protection. Your mind is a powerful tool, and it's natural to use dissociative as a coping mechanism in order to avoid confronting the traumatic situation and its effect on your life.

How can I help a loved one with dissociation?

If you know a loved one who experienced chronic dissociation, remember that patience and kindness is key. Someone who is dissociating is not dangerous or violent. They cannot control their condition, so frustration and anger do not help the situation—acceptance is key. Instead, learn more about the condition and learn some "grounding" techniques to practice with your loved one. Grounding is a technique that helps the individual connect with the immediate world around them in reality rather than their dissociative episode. There are many different techniques to practice and try to find the best fit.

If you or a loved one is experiencing chronic dissociation, clinicians in our Counseling & Wellness Centers are available to help.