Complex Trauma: What is Dissociation?

Have you ever had what you describe as an out-of-body experience where you could not feel anything going on around you?

You may have felt floaty or unable to move. You may have felt like you were watching yourself from somewhere else.

Your skin may have tingled, your heart may have raced, and you lost a sense of where you were and what you were doing.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Dissociation is pretty common; according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), up to 75% of people experience at least one dissociate episode in their lives.

Dissociation is a mental process that causes thoughts, memories, and a person’s sense of identity to lack coherency and connections.

Dissociation ranges from mild to severe.

Mild dissociation is like daydreaming while you are driving and realizing you don’t remember the last five miles.

Severe dissociation is chronic and manifests itself in mental disorder, including Dissociate Identity Disorder (DID), which used to be known as Multiple Personality Disorder.

In this video, Dr Todd Grande, a Professor of Psychology and a Licensed Counsellor, explains DID in depth.

Dissociation and dissociative disorder can be mentally and emotionally paralyzing, leaving some in fear and with no sense of what is real and what is not.

So, what causes dissociations?

Usually, past unresolved trauma is to blame, sometimes leaving the sufferer unaware that it’s even there.

PTSD survivors may experience dissociation.

However, sometimes people experience dissociative episodes that are not correlated with trauma. They could be linked with another disorder like depression or anxiety, or they could be stand-alone dissociations.

What’s happening in the brain during dissociation?

Researchers say to think about the “fight-or-flight,” response where someone is under extreme stress, and the body produces adrenaline.

Dissociation is a step beyond that, where the body tries to preserve its energy by shutting down.

It’s the body’s last response in which the brain prepares the body for injury.

There’s also a chemical component to dissociation.

According to researchers, the brain releases its own opioids and cannabinoids, reducing perceptions of not only physical pain but emotional pain in order to create a calm sense of detachment from one’s surroundings.

What does dissociation feel like?

Dissociation is hard to describe those who experience it describe it differently.

Some people say it’s like feeling spacy. Others report it feeling panicky, and still, others describe it as uncontrollable rage.

The one commonality is that once someone enters a dissociative state, they lose awareness of what’s going on around them.

The following are some other descriptions of how dissociation feels:

  • A feeling of seeing yourself while outside of your body
  • A feeling of a complete blacking out, similar to a blackout from drugs or alcohol
  • A lapse in memory of anywhere from a few minutes to hours
  • A brain fog where time moves slowly or feels frozen
  • A feeling as though your body is on autopilot, as in going through motions, but disconnected from it.

Sometimes people experience triggers like a sound, smell, or image that takes them back to past trauma.

Other times, dissociating is brought on suddenly, with no obvious causes.

That’s what makes dissociation so intriguing and confusing.

What treatments are available for dissociation?

Treatments for dissociation episodes or dissociative disorders typically involve psychotherapy. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective therapies for a range of issues.

CBT can help identify negative and harmful thinking patterns and beliefs that drive painful emotions.

Dialectic Behavioural Therapy (DBT) was originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder.

It also identifies emotional triggers, but it teaches mindfulness techniques like meditation, breathing exercises, and self-calming methods that can help one stay grounded and aware of his or her surroundings.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a newer therapeutic technique that has been shown to treat those with trauma, trauma-related disorders, and dissociation.

The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) endorses EMDR as a treatment in conjunction with an overall treatment plan.

During EMDR, patients delve into patients’ memories with the guidance of a professional during eight phases of treatment.

If you struggle with dissociation, please know that you’re not alone, and there is a way out. 

Contact us today if you’d like a confidential and free chat with one of our highly-trained professionals.


Ameet Braich - Camino Recovery Spain

Ameet Singh Braich, a distinguished Clinical Director at Camino Recovery, is renowned for expertise in addiction and trauma resolution. With 15+ years of experience, he transforms lives through a holistic therapeutic approach. His research focuses on childhood maltreatment's impact on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning.

A dynamic speaker and trainer, Ameet empowers clients to achieve lasting recovery, prioritizing trauma resolution and relapse prevention. His diverse training includes EAP, crisis intervention, and EMDR. Committed to positive transformation, Ameet equips individuals across fields to address challenges of addiction.

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