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What Is Dissociation?

Dissociation Is More Than Just Spacing Out

What is dissociation?

If you've ever checked out mentally from the world around you in a stressful situation, you could have been dissociating. Dissociation occurs when your mind disconnects from your reality, creating the sensation of your consciousness leaving your body. "It's like taking yourself out of a certain situation and then not being in touch with . . . [your] current environment," psychiatrist Scott Ira Krakower, DO, tells POPSUGAR. On social media platforms, like TikTok, the word "dissociation" is commonly brought up when users share their methods for dealing with an anxiety-inducing scenario by cognitively removing themselves from the situation.

In a study by Stanford University, one participant described dissociating as being "outside the pilot's chair, looking at, but not controlling, the gauges," according to Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, a professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the institution. When this type of disconnect is long lasting or happens on a recurring basis, it could be considered a dissociative disorder.

So what exactly causes a person to dissociate? Dissociation can be brought on by many scenarios including panic, stress, anxiety, and depression, Dr. Krakower says. He also mentions that changes in mood can cause the mind to detach from reality, or dissociate.

Dissociation Symptoms

According to the Mayo Clinic and Dr. Krakower, dissociation symptoms show up differently for everyone. Some of the most common symptoms associated with dissociation include:

  • Selective memory loss
  • Feeling detached from your physical body, emotions, and reality
  • Difficulty coping with stressful situations
  • An unsure sense of self
  • Experiencing significant stress in important areas of your life
  • Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors

How to Refocus After Dissociating

Once you realize that you've just dissociated, it can be tough to get back in touch with reality. Dr. Krakower suggests taking a break to do something that makes you feel relaxed. "You could do anything that's going to distract yourself," he advises. Grabbing a snack, shopping, watching sports, napping, or taking a yoga class are all methods he suggests to help bring you back into your body when you've caught yourself dissociating.

Is It Bad to Dissociate?

A wandering mind can be both a useful tool or a hindrance to your life, depending on the frequency of dissociative episodes. Dr. Krakower mentions that dissociation has the ability to divert your mind away from a stressful or panic-inducing situation "and also to help you relax during moments of intense distress."

Like most things in life, too much dissociating is something to pay attention to. According to Dr. Krakower, "dissociation becomes problematic . . . if you feel like you're getting increasingly confused or not aware of your surroundings, or you're not as attentive to task," as it can be a sign of a more serious dissociative disorder. He continues, "If you find that you're having these almost dissociative-like states more and more, then maybe it's time to get help (by seeing a mental health professional), because maybe you're just overwhelmingly anxious." Frequent dissociating could also mean that you have a dissociative disorder.

Types of Dissociative Disorders

There are three types of dissociative disorders, per the American Psychiatric Association (APA): dissociative identity disorder, dissociative amnesia, and depersonalization/derealization disorder.

Dissociative Identity Disorder:

Previously known as multiple personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder usually stems from a childhood traumatic event. A person with this dissociative disorder may feel that "they have suddenly become observers of their own speech and actions, or their bodies may feel different," according to the APA. Symptoms listed include frequent gaps in memory, extreme difficulty functioning in social settings, and "the existence of two or more distinct identities."

Dissociative Amnesia:

Found commonly in people with emotionally abusive childhood trauma, dissociative amnesia causes someone to have significant memory gaps. These gaps could be in relation to specific events, parts of an event, or, sometimes, but rarely, "complete loss of identity and life history," per the APA.

Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder:

Depersonalization or derealization involves feeling detached from the mind or physical body and feeling like you're surrounded by an unreal world. According to the APA: "Symptoms may begin in early childhood . . . Less than 20 percent of people with depersonalization/derealization disorder first experience symptoms after age 20."

If this description of dissociation or any of these dissociative disorders feel very true to you and your experience in the world, please speak to your mental health provider to learn more about dissociation as it relates to you.

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