What Is Dissociation?

By: Stuart Porter, NP


Dissociation is an experience in which someone feels a lack of connection in their identity, their thoughts, their memories, their surroundings, and their actions. Some people describe as being an out-of-body experience while others describe it as zoning out. While daydreaming and wandering thoughts are normal, dissociation is much more serious. 

Causes of Dissociation 

The main cause of dissociation is trauma, more specifically, childhood trauma. During childhood, personality and coping skills are formed. If a child is subject to long-term abuse or a home environment that is unpredictable, that child might use dissociation as a coping skill. 

While there is a higher risk in children, any abuse or trauma can lead to the development of a dissociative disorder. 

Here is a list of examples of trauma that can lead to dissociation: 

  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse 
  • Combat/war 
  • Natural disasters 
  • Kidnapping 
  • Torture 
  • Extended early-life medical procedures 

These are not the only causes of dissociation, as many people experience trauma differently. 

Conditions Associated with Dissociation 

There are three dissociative disorders as well as multiple mental health conditions that are associated with dissociation. 

Depersonalization-derealization disorder

This disorder includes ongoing or periods of feeling a sense of detachment. There are two parts to this disorder, depersonalization and derealization.  Depersonalization can be described as feeling detached from yourself, such as observing your feelings, thoughts, or actions from a distance.  

Derealization is described as feeling detached from the world. This can include feeling as though time is sped up or slowed down, or that the world isn’t real. With this disorder, you can feel depersonalization, derealization, or in some cases, both.  

Dissociative identity disorder

This disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, includes having alternate identities.  

With this disorder, you may feel as though there are multiple people in your head. These identities may be unique, such as having a different name, characteristics, or mannerisms. 

People with this disorder typically also experience dissociative amnesia, which is a disorder that is characterized by the forgetfulness, or amnesia. This forgetfulness is more severe than normal, and doesn’t have a medical condition associated with it. 

This amnesia may involve a complete memory loss, including forgetting people and events in your life. This disorder may be episodic or in rare cases last from months to years. 

These are the three dissociative disorders that people who dissociate may experience. 

Other Conditions Associated With Dissociation

If someone has a dissociative disorder, they may also be experiencing some other conditions and disorders. Here are some of the commonly associated risks: 

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 
  • Depression 
  • Anxiety 
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) 
  • An eating disorder 
  • Panic attacks 
  • Suicidal tendencies 
  • Self-harm 
  • Sexual dysfunction 
  • Alcoholism or drug use 
  • Personality disorders 
  • Sleep disorders 
  • Difficulties in personal relationships 
  • Non-epileptic seizures 

These are not the only other conditions that may be associated with dissociative disorders. However, they are the most common.  

How to Identify Dissociation 

There are many signs that can tell you if someone is dissociating. Here are some of the signs and symptoms of dissociation: 

  • Spaced out 
  • Staring/glazed look 
  • Mind going blank 
  • Mind wandering 
  • Detachment from self or identity 
  • Sense of the world not being real 
  • Disconnected from surroundings 
  • Confusion 

These are the most common signs of dissociation; however, dissociation is not always obvious. These symptoms are on a spectrum. Some people may experience the more severe side, while others may experience the milder symptoms. 

Symptoms can last anywhere between a few minutes to a few weeks. Sometimes the experience may be a blur, other times the experience may be blacked out and forgotten altogether. It is important to note that dissociation doesn’t have to be severe in order to be dissociation. 

Treatment Options for Dissociation 

The good news is there are treatment options for dissociation. The most common treatments are therapy and medication. 

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is the primary treatment option. During this therapy, new coping skills are taught to replace dissociation. After the new skills have been learned, the trauma that caused dissociation will be worked on in attempt to move past it. 

Medications are another treatment option. There are no FDA-approved medications for dissociation, however doctors can prescribe other medications to help deal with the symptoms. These medications can be anxiolytics (anti-anxiety medication), antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and antipsychotics. 

If you or a loved one is suffering from dissociation, contact us at Serenity Mental Health Centers to come up with a treatment plan that will work for you. 

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*All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.