What is dissociation & what is it not?

Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

Dissociation is a behavior that happens when your mind is trying to handle overwhelming information. Everyone experiences dissociation, but there are some individuals who experience dissociation in a more intense way.

What does dissociation feel like?

Dissociative experiences occur when our internal world is struggling to make sense of external circumstances. Dissociation may feel like:

-          Feeling as though you are having an out of body experience

-          Feeling like you are a different person

-          Feeling emotionally numb or detached

-          Feeling like it is hard to remember periods of time or important information

-          Feeling like the world around you is unreal

These are some of the symptoms a person may feel during periods of dissociation. Dissociation is a protective skill for when we do not feel able to tolerate what is happening outside of us. However, when dissociation becomes the only skill we have to deal with difficult external circumstances, our mental health begins to suffer.

Individuals who struggle to use skills other than dissociation or who have a more severe dissociative experience may experience the following: their relationships start to suffer or break down, difficulty or inability to stay employed, sleep problems like insomnia, severe depression and anxiety, extreme disordered eating behaviors, problematic substance use, self-harm behaviors, or suicidal ideation.

Dissociating is not simply daydreaming or spacing out. It is not a new trend in feminism, as was claimed in a 2019 Buzzfeed article. It is the experience of detaching from your thoughts, emotions, and experience when feeling unsafe or in response to triggers related to trauma. The truth is that dissociation is a continuum with more mild experiences like “highway hypnosis”1 and “flow”2 on one end, and loss of identity and loss of time on the other end.

If you are concerned that you may be experiencing dissociation, there are mental health professionals who can help assess for this behavior. Most mental health professionals agree that dissociation is a trauma response and many mental health professionals have learned more about treating trauma in individuals with dissociation. This includes specific assessments, skill building for managing dissociation, time orienting skills, and targeted trauma intervention.

If you have experienced trauma (big T or little t trauma) and find that you are dissociating please know these three things:

1.       You are not alone. Everyone experiences some level of dissociation and if you are a survivor of trauma this is a common protective mechanism.

2.       There are professionals who focus on treating dissociation and who want to help you.

3.       You can learn to manage dissociation and heal from past trauma.

To learn more about dissociation or to find a therapist near you who treats dissociation, visit psychologytoday.com


1 https://www.healthline.com/health/highway-hypnosis#causes

2 https://positivepsychology.com/what-is-flow/

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

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