What Is Dissociation?

The first time I experienced dissociation I had no idea what was happening or how to explain it. It felt like an out-of-body experience. I’d be doing normal daily tasks and all of a sudden it was like I wasn’t in my body but instead, I was watching myself in a movie. 

It started a few years ago around the time I moved out of my mom’s house. We had a pretty traumatic fight and I spent weeks trying to recover from it. I started noticing symptoms and looked up out-of-body experiences. That was the only way I knew how to describe it.

After researching for a while, I came across the term dissociation and read several symptoms that I resonated with.

What is Dissociation?

Dissociation is a disconnection between thoughts, memories, feelings, surroundings, behavior, and identity. Symptoms of dissociation can range from everyday experiences that can be mild to an actual disorder that impacts daily life.

If a person experiences persistent dissociative episodes, it may be indicative of a mental health condition such as a dissociative disorder.

Because I don’t have a dissociative disorder, I can’t speak much about what it’s like to live with one. However, I have experienced dissociation on several occasions. 

Symptoms:

Amnesia: Difficulty remembering important information, can be described as gaps in memory that can last minutes, hours, days, months or years. 

Depersonalization: Feeling detachment from thoughts, body, and feelings as if you’re watching yourself in a movie.

Derealization: Feeling detached from your surroundings. People and things around you may seem unreal.

Identity Alteration: A sense of being markedly different from another part of oneself. Feeling your identity shift and change, using different voices or names. Switching between different parts of your personality.

Identity Confusion: A sense of confusion about who you really are.

It’s important to realize that a person can experience symptoms of dissociation without having a dissociative disorder. 

Dissociation can also be caused by other mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder. 

It’s also often a defense mechanism that helps cope with trauma. 

For me, I believe I began dissociating as a way to cope with stress and trauma. My therapist also said there was a link found between bipolar disorder and dissociation so that could explain my symptoms as well.

It often felt like my body wasn’t mine when I would dissociate. There were times I’d revert back to a childlike state which I learned is called age regression. During those times I’d do and behave in ways that a young child would. I couldn’t really remember what took place once I came back to the present moment. I had to rely on people around me to tell me what had happened. 

Treatment

While I’ve brought up my dissociation symptoms in the past to my therapist, I haven’t necessarily been treated for it since it hasn’t happened for quite some time. 

Treatment for dissociation may take years to help. That being said, here are some ways dissociation may be treated:

Psychotherapy 

There are different types of psychotherapy that are used to treat dissociation. These include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – Helps people identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors and helps them find coping strategies. CBT teaches you how your thoughts, feelings, and behavior impact each other.
  • Eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) – An effective treatment that helps individuals recover from trauma and other distressing life experiences. EMDR allows people to reprocess their painful experiences to help get through them. Bilateral stimulation is used in EMDR. A client will follow a moving object with their eyes while recalling a traumatic experience. EMDR works by reducing the emotional impact of the client’s memory.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – Designed to help people with extreme or unstable emotions and those who struggle with self-harm or suicidality. It’s especially effective for those living with borderline personality disorder (BPD). 

Self-care

In my experience, what worked for me is just letting the episode of dissociation pass. That doesn’t mean there aren’t self-care strategies that may help.

  • Keep a journal – From my understanding, dissociation occurs for a reason, even if we aren’t sure what that reason is. Keeping a journal can help you identify your triggers. If you have a therapist, going over what you’ve journaled about can help you find better coping skills. After a dissociative episode, try to look back at the moments leading up to it and write about that. 
  • Stay grounded – When we dissociate there’s a disconnect that’s happening. We often feel like our body doesn’t belongs to us. Trying different grounding techniques can help you to reconnect. One grounding technique you can try is yoga, more specifically yin yoga. Yin yoga is more of a meditative practice where you hold poses for 3-5 minutes. 
  • Focus on your breath – I’ve found that this helps when I feel like I’m detached from my body. You can practice self-soothing by breathing. 
  • Let people around you know that you need help – Even if others don’t understand what you’re going through, you still need a support system. It can be frustrating trying to explain what it’s like to dissociate but I’ve found that there are people out there who want to help in whatever way they can. Keep a list of contact details for your friends and family.
  • Let it run its course – As I mentioned earlier, when I have experienced dissociation, I usually just let it happen until it passes. I hate the feeling of dissociating but sometimes the best thing to do is to wait for it to pass. 
  • Be kind to yourself – Remember that dissociation is usually a response to trauma. You survived something in your life that was traumatic. If you’ve gone a while without having an episode then you suddenly have one, know that relapses happen and it’s ok. Don’t beat yourself up.
  • Forgive yourself – Regardless of whether you live with a dissociative disorder or you experience episodes that are minor, forgiving yourself is important. What’s happening isn’t your fault.
  • Write notes to yourself – If you have trouble remembering things when you dissociate, try writing notes to yourself on sticky notes and leaving them around your home. 

Dealing with dissociation is hard. It can impact your daily life and make it difficult to get anything accomplished. In a way, dissociating is our brain trying to keep us safe, though it doesn’t always feel that way. When I first experienced dissociation, I was terrified especially because at the time I had no idea what was happening. 

It may feel like you have no power or control, but remember you are not powerless. 

Photo by Bestbe Models from Pexels

3 thoughts on “What Is Dissociation?

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