What Is Dissociation?
You May Be Dissociating More Often Than You Think; Here's What to Know
If you've ever checked out mentally from the world around you — particularly 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 Stanford University study, one participant described dissociating as being "outside the pilot's chair, looking at, but not controlling, the gauges," said Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, a professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the institution and senior author of the study. 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. Often times, you may not even realize when you're dissociating. But knowing what dissociation is, dissociation symptoms, and how to stop dissociation can help you better navigate when the dissociation occurs.
What Is Dissociation?
As mentioned above, dissociation what happens when your mind disconnects from your reality. The American Psychiatric Association describes it as "a disconnection between a person's thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of who he or she is." Even in mild forms, dissociation happens on a regular basis, like in daydreaming or "getting lost" in a book or movie, the APA reports. But, there are also dissociative disorders, which usually develop as a reaction to trauma, per the Mayo Clinic. Unlike periodic dissociation, "people with dissociative disorders escape reality in ways that are involuntary and unhealthy and cause problems with functioning in everyday life," the Clinic reports.
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 Stop Dissociation
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 and grounded. You can start by engaging your senses. Maybe grab your favorite snack to get your taste buds going or get moving again by taking a quick yoga class. The key is to do something that will help bring you back into your body. If you find yourself dissociating more and more regularly, it may be beneficial to speak with a mental health provider about your experience and specific coping methods that will work best for you.
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."
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 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, it may be useful to speak to a mental health provider to learn more about dissociation as it relates to your experience and what treatment, if any, is best for you.