Many people experience dissociation at some stage.
During a dissociative episode, you might be aware of what is happening to you or be confused or shocked by your symptoms.
This experience can be frightening as various (unpleasant) symptoms are linked to dissociation, a mental health condition often triggered by a stressful or traumatic event.
Feeling detached or disconnected from your body.
When you dissociate, you may feel detached from your body or like the world around you isn’t real.
You may also feel disconnected from your thoughts, body, and surroundings.
What is dissociation, and what causes it?
People experience dissociation for various reasons; however, dissociative episodes are usually triggered by profoundly stressful or traumatic events.
For instance, you might dissociate if something traumatic has happened to you (or someone close to you).
Moreover, you may experience a dissociative episode during times of stress.
Studies show dissociative disorder symptoms can also be part of a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety.
Symptoms of dissociation
Depending on your type of disorder and severity, there are various signs and symptoms of dissociative disorders.
Signs and symptoms
Typically, symptoms of a dissociative disorder include:
- Problems with managing challenging or difficult emotions
- Feeling detached or disconnected from yourself.
- Feeling as though the world around you isn’t real or other people (and your surroundings) are distorted.
- Memory problems that are not associated with another physical or medical condition
- Profound memory lapses – you may forget personal details or essential information about yourself (or an event)
- Identity confusion – for instance, you may behave in a way that is out of character for you, or you may do or say things that you ordinarily find offensive or unacceptable.
- Sudden, unexpected mood shifts, for example, you may feel elated or intensely sad for no reason.
- Issues with concentration (and other cognitive-related problems)
- Symptoms of anxiety or depression
Types of dissociative disorders
Mental health professionals and researchers have identified four primary types of dissociative disorders, they include:
- Dissociative fugue
- Dissociative amnesia
- Depersonalisation disorder
- Dissociative identity disorder
How the mind copes with stress
Dissociation is one way the mind copes with too much stress, such as during a traumatic event (Mind, Dissociation, and dissociative disorders).
Those who experience dissociation may find that their symptoms last for a short time, i.e., hours or days.
On the other hand, some people may experience a dissociative episode for much longer, i.e., weeks or months (Mind, Dissociation, and dissociative disorders).
People with dissociative disorders often dissociate to cope with stress or trauma. This may work in the short term.
However, when dissociation is long-lasting, episodes become far more common.
Rather than being a short-term experience, dissociation can become a coping mechanism to manage stress or difficult experiences.
What it feels like to experience a dissociative disorder
People with dissociative disorders have described various experiences of dissociation.
One individual said they felt ”as if their body didn’t belong to them, as if they were an outsider watching their own story unfold.”
Such experiences are prevalent with dissociation as the mind attempts to cope with significant stress or trauma.
When might a person dissociate?
There are various reasons why a person may dissociate, including:
Experiencing a traumatic event
For most people, dissociation is a trauma response they can’t control.
Traumatic events can be single (a one-time event) or chronic (a series of ongoing traumatic events); either way, dissociation is how people cope with constant abuse or trauma.
Having another mental health condition
You may also experience dissociation due to another mental health condition.
For instance, you may dissociate if you have a specific mental illness, such as:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Bipolar disorder
Medication or alcohol side effects
Studies show that people can experience dissociation as a side effect of a specific medication or when coming off a particular prescribed medication.
Additionally, people may also experience dissociation as a side effect of alcohol.
How dissociation presents
People experience dissociation in various ways. However, inherently, there are no absolutes to how dissociation can be experienced.
Researchers and mental health professionals have grouped various dissociative experiences, assigning them names or diagnostic ”types”.
It would be helpful if you remembered that you could have many experiences of dissociation even if you haven’t been diagnosed with a dissociative disorder.
Dissociative experiences may involve:
Travelling to different locations or adopting a new identity
It is common for people with a dissociative disorder to take on a new identity; this usually only happens for a short period when a person doesn’t remember their identity and adopts a new one.
Individuals may also travel to a new destination or location without knowing how they got there.
Mental health professionals call this dissociative experience dissociative fugue.
Feeling as though you are ”outside your body” or looking at yourself from the outside.
During a traumatic event, many people report a feeling of ”being outside of their body”.
Such a response is prevalent among trauma victims as the mind tries to cope with intensely stressful situations or events.
You may also feel as though you are looking at yourself from the outside; other dissociative experiences include:
- Feeling as if you are floating away.
- Feeling detached or disconnected from your emotions or specific parts of your body.
- Feeling as though you are only observing your feelings as if they are not a part of you.
- Feeling as though you are watching yourself in a movie.
Mental health professionals call these dissociative experiences depersonalisation.
Feeling like the world and other people around you are not real.
During a dissociative episode, you may experience the world as colourless, foggy, or lifeless.
Experiences associated with this type of dissociative disorder can involve feeling as though the world around you is ”unreal”.
You might feel that other people appear robotic or weird; you may also see objects around you change in shape, colour, or size.
Psychologists call this type of dissociation derealisation.
Being unable to recall personal information
When you experience dissociation, you may not be able to recall or remember specific personal information about yourself or events that have happened to you in the past.
You may have significant gaps in your life where you can’t recall anything that happened (Mind, Dissociation, and dissociative disorders). Medical professionals call these experiences dissociative amnesia.
Changes in your identity
A prevalent symptom of dissociation is when a person experiences identity shifts and changes. This may include:
- Using different names
- Behaving or acting like other people
- Speaking in different voices or tones
- Oscillating between different parts of your personality
- Feeling your identity shift and change
According to Mind, psychologists call these dissociative experiences identity alteration.
Being unable to identify or define who you are
Many people with dissociative disorders have difficulty identifying the self and defining who they are.
They may struggle to describe or define their characteristics or personalities and feel that other identities or people exist within them. Mental health professionals call this type of dissociation identity confusion.
Researchers believe that dissociative disorders are due to chronic trauma in childhood.
These experiences can involve emotional abuse or neglect, repeated physical or sexual abuse, or frightening or unpredictable family environments that cause the child to ”disconnect” (Better Health Channel, Dissociation, and dissociative disorders).
Research shows that the severity of dissociative disorders experienced in adulthood is directly related to the severity of childhood trauma (Better Health Channel, Dissociation, and dissociative disorders).
What are the complications associated with dissociative disorders?
Studies show that without treatment, complications can occur for those with dissociative disorders, including:
- Anxiety disorders
- Job loss and relationship difficulties
- Self-harm (including suicide)
- Substance misuse, including drug use and alcohol
- Severe depression
- Eating disorders
- Sexual problems
Treatment for dissociative disorders can be a complicated process due to a lack of research in this area. However, case studies have shown that specific therapies and lifestyle choices can help those with dissociative disorders.
Treatment options include:
- Psychotherapy – also referred to as counselling or ”talk therapy”. Some forms of psychotherapy may consist of cognitive behavioural therapy and psychoanalysis.
- Stress management programs – studies show that stress is one of the primary triggers of dissociation. Hence people with the condition would benefit from stress management therapy.
- Dual-diagnosis treatment – those with dissociative disorders often have other mental health conditions, sometimes called co-occurring disorders. Such conditions may include depression or anxiety. Individuals may get prescribed medication to try and improve their symptoms.
- A safe space – providing a safe space for trauma survivors to talk about their experiences can sometimes help with memory recall. Offering clients a safe and relaxing place to talk about their trauma can be helpful for those with dissociative disorders, as this may allow them to reprocess difficult memories safely.
How Camino Recovery can help
We specialise in treating various mental health disorders and addictions at Camino Recovery.
Our specialists cultivate a trauma-informed approach with all clients, offering a safe space for healing and recovery.
If you think you may have any of the symptoms mentioned in this article or are concerned about your mental health, contact one of our specialists, who can help.
We are always on hand to lend a compassionate ear. Contact us today.