In the field of mental health, there are plenty of terms used to describe a reaction or sensation to something, mainly when a traumatic or stressful event arises in a person’s life.
What does dissociation mean?
The term ”dissociation” or ”dissociate” describes how a person processes a profoundly distressing or traumatic event.
When a person dissociates, they may feel disconnected from themselves and the world around them. They may also feel detached from their body and feel as though the people (and the world around them) are no longer real.
Dissociation and dissociative behaviors may last for hours, days, weeks and even months.
Individuals who dissociate over a long time may develop a mental health condition called a dissociative disorder or dissociative identity disorder.
Symptoms of dissociation
In many instances, dissociation or dissociative disorders are a natural response to trauma.
Trauma-related dissociation may get induced by a singular traumatic event or ongoing abuse and trauma.
Dissociative identity disorder and dissociative disorder may also be part of another co-occurring mental illness such as:
- PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
Individuals can also experience dissociative disorder as a side effect from certain substances such as cannabis, ketamine, alcohol, hallucinogens, and prescription medications.
There are plenty of symptoms that people experience when they have dissociative disorders or a dissociative identity disorder; these include:
- Feeling disconnected from their body
- Feeling disconnected from the world around them
- Identity confusion or complete loss of identity – this may involve developing a new identity, losing a sense of identity or having several different identities
- Developing multiple identities
- An altered sense of self and the world (identity alteration)
- Developing memory problems and forgetting specific periods, personal information and events
- Having suicidal thoughts
- Feeling disconnected from one’s surroundings
Other symptoms of the dissociative disorder include:
- Feeling little to no pain
- Having an out-of-body -experience
- An individual who dissociates may also forget things such as personal details about themselves
- Anxiety and stress
- Memory loss
- Experience negative thoughts
Studies conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) state that dissociative disorders featuring dissociation and depersonalization include:
- Depersonalization-derealization disorder: This disorder involves out of body experiences, a feeling of being unreal, changes in bodily sensations, and an inability to react to life events on an emotional level.
- Dissociative identity disorder: An individual with this psychiatric disorder may feel incredibly confused and feel like a stranger in their body. They may exhibit different behaviors at different times and adopt different handwriting styles. This condition sometimes gets referred to as multiple personality disorder.
- Dissociative amnesia: Individuals may experience a total memory lapse and be incapable of remembering information about themselves or what has happened to them.
Some cultures encourage depersonalization through meditation or religious practice, all of which are not mental health disorders.
What causes dissociative disorder to occur?
As previously mentioned, dissociative disorders can occur for several reasons; however, dissociative disorders usually get triggered by traumatic events such as:
- Witnessing (or being the victim of) a natural disaster
- Experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress
- Sexual abuse
- Physical or emotional abuse
- Childhood trauma
- Chronic trauma or ongoing trauma (such as dealing with a bereavement, having a severe illness and living with someone who has a mental health problem).
Research from the Mayo Clinic explains that dissociative disorders usually develop as a reaction to trauma and help keep difficult memories at bay.
The development of a dissociative disorder can range from amnesia to the adoption of alternate identities, all of which are dependent on the type of dissociative identity disorder a person has.
Further research suggests that dissociative disorders most often occur in children who are the victims of long-term child abuse, sexual or emotional abuse or, less common, a home environment that is scary or unpredictable.
Since our personalities get formed in childhood, children are much more susceptible to dissociative disorders as they are more capable of stepping outside of themselves and observing their environment.
Therefore, when children get exposed to any form of childhood trauma, they are far more likely to observe traumatic events as though they are happening to someone else.
When children get conditioned to dissociate from traumatic experiences, they often use this as a coping strategy as an adequate response to stressful situations throughout their entire lives.
The problem with dissociative experiences is that they can cause a build-up of unresolved emotions and feelings, all of which should otherwise get released.
Thoughts feelings memories
When a person disconnects from themselves and their environment – they stifle the ability to express and regulate their emotions, which may cause other psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, to name just a few.
When dissociation occurs: The positives
Amid a terrible event, symptoms related to dissociative disorders can be beneficial to get people through whatever is happening around them.
Essentially, when people experience dissociation, it can be helpful in the present moment, but it can cause severe implications in the long term.
Individuals who suffer from dissociative disorders are at higher risk of developing other psychiatric disorders such as:
- Alcohol and drug use disorders
- Self-harm or mutilation
- Sleep disorders
- Eating disorders
- Physical symptoms such as light-headedness or non-epileptic seizures
- Sexual dysfunction
- Depression and anxiety disorders
- Personality disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Suicidal thoughts and behavior
In more severe cases, further complications can arise from dissociative disorders, such as a condition called dissociative fugue.
Dissociative fugue is a condition caused by extreme psychological distress and trauma instead of physical trauma, illness or another medical disease.
Symptoms of dissociative fugue include not having any memory of your past or about yourself. The type of memory loss that a person experiences with dissociative fugue gets referred to as autobiographical memories.
Mental health professionals describe the condition as a way for people to escape a situation that causes extreme stress.
There are several ways to treat dissociation and symptoms of dissociation, all of which depend on a person’s specific diagnosis.
Treatment options for dissociative disorders include:
- Psychotherapy (talk therapy)
- Cognitive-behavioural therapy
- Medication such as antidepressants, antipsychotic drugs or anti-anxiety medications all help to control the symptoms of dissociation and dissociative disorders
The majority of the literature suggests that psychotherapy is usually the primary treatment offered to people with dissociative disorders or dissociative identity disorder.
Psychotherapy, sometimes known as talk therapy, counseling or psychosocial therapy, involves speaking with a trained mental health professional about your feelings, dissociative identity disorder and any other mental illness that may inhibit your quality of life.
A licensed psychotherapist gets trained to help ease unpleasant symptoms associated with dissociative disorders by helping people understand the root cause of their dissociative identity disorder.
All this may involve talking in a safe space about any past trauma, which over time, allows people to identify healthier coping mechanisms for the future.
Alternative treatments may involve mindfulness practice, including deep breathing and visual exercises, allowing people the space to regain control and a more profound sense of identity over their own lives.
When people experience chronic trauma, it can be a lifelong challenge to stay mentally well.
Still, with the right help and support, it is possible to overcome dissociative disorders and dissociative identity disorder symptoms and experience a life that is free from the clutches of trauma.