Dissociation is much misunderstood because it can describe a state of being or awareness that occurs for three different reasons.
First, it is a common occurrence that happens to almost everyone regularly (see below).
Second, is can be a deliberately induced positive state when meditating or reflecting.
Third, it can be protective coping mechanism (avoidance of negative or painful memories.
First and foremost, it is important to know that dissociation is not a disorder or illness you “get” or have. It is a state of "being" that you arrive at, or find yourself in, as a coping mechanism or strategy.
It characterized by an unexpected partial or complete disruption of the normal integration of a person’s conscious or psychological functioning (which is a neutral description signifying neither good nor bad).
Dissociation is a mental process that disconnects a person from their thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity: it is a disconnection from one’s inner self and from the “reality” around oneself.
Dissociation can be a response to trauma, and perhaps allows the mind to distance itself from experiences that are too much for the psyche to process at that time (see below).
Dissociative disruptions can affect any aspect of a person’s functioning. Many dissociative disruptions involve amnesia (not always – but very frequently).
Since dissociations are normally unanticipated, they are typically experienced as startling, autonomous intrusions into the person's usual ways of responding or functioning. Due to their unexpected and largely inexplicable nature, they tend to be quite unsettling.
Dissociative amnesia and fugue states are often triggered by life stresses that fall far short of trauma.
This mechanism is mostly automatic, an unconscious activity of the mind. For some folks, it may be the only, or at least the most preferred method of dealing with the stresses of life. There are various degrees of dissociation, which can range from normal to problematic in a person's life.
The Dissociation coping strategy develops in those who have suffered a significant degree of trauma and/or abuse in their lives. This includes traumatic events such as accidents, serious illness, etc., severe stress, and/or any type of abuse: physical, emotional or sexual.
For these people the occurrence of trauma or abuse is almost always present in their history when Those who have been traumatized or abused almost always have dissociated to some degree.
Dissociation in general
1. Common Occurrence: Dissociation is actually a natural function of normal life.
Children are very good at dissociation, and this is especially evident in their play.
They can become completely absorbed in the game they are playing, and for the moment, they BECOME the princess, or the prince, or the fireman, or the nurse, or the doctor, or the good guy, or the bad guy, or the cat, or the dog, or. . .
The child simply "becomes" another person, often without any conscious decision to do so, have the things happen to that person, not oneself . . . and the child is able to move on in life and survive.
This is because, as far as they are concerned, it never happened to them, or the memory of it has been significantly minimized to a manageable size, since the experience was borne, or at least shared by "someone else".
If the event is traumatic enough, it may even be blocked entirely from the child's conscious memory.
Adults also dissociate naturally: For example, many people do it while driving. When you have been traveling down the road, thinking about something else, and then realized that you have missed the turn you were to take, that is dissociation.
Or if you were staring at a computer screen and not taking anything in, chances are you just had a little dissociative moment.
It's a state somewhere between sleep and waking, a little of both, simultaneously.
Some folks feel a bit foggy headed, while others find their vision is not as sharp, or images are fuzzy around the edges.
Some people describe it as if they are looking through a veil, and feeling emotionally numb.
We also use dissociation to help us focus on what we need to in the current task we are doing, while blocking out other things that could be distractions. This is normal dissociation. In fact, people who can not keep distractions out have a great deal of difficulty with concentration and therefore with functioning in life.
2. Deliberately induced mind setting and focus. Many people engage in various forms of mental quietude, including meditation, and when meditating one deliberately seeks to shut out all external distractions and to "empty the mind" - and perhaps focus on just one single thing or thought. This is a positive form of dissociation (the mechanism by which this works is similar or the same in all three forms.
3. Dissociation as a protective coping mechanism is largely automatic. When a life event occurs that is too difficult for the person's system to handle and process right away, there is a sort of switch in the brain that is activated, and this blocks out the experience, or parts of the experience, from conscious memory. This can occur often in any type of traumatic event. There are many examples:
One example is at accidents where people are in shock and will have trouble relating the events afterwards. During the incident they will appear to be conscious and aware - but will sometimes have limited or no recall of the events within a specific time period.
As their mind and body settles back to normal, the memories of the event can be recalled more clearly, and they can more coherently describe what happened.
This is a simple, natural way in which dissociation functions: It protects the system from becoming overloaded and damaged by too much stress and trauma, by not allowing it all to be fully experienced all at once.
The catch is; it is meant to be a short term thing - for survival.
When the person begins to recover, and their system is more able to process the event, a fuller memory of what occurred will often return to their normal state of awareness. When this happens, they will often feel like they are reliving the event all over again.
In some ways, they are, because in many cases some of the experience was blocked off as being too overwhelming to cope with consciously at the time, and is only now being experienced.
To handle this in a functional manner, those experiences need to be processed, so that they can be stored as a memory that can be described in words, instead of being lived, and relived, as if they were occurring again and again in the current time.
The processing is done by allowing the various aspects of the memory to return and working through and resolving the issues involved in the experience, by using other methods instead of dissociation.
Dissociation as interference with a functional life: Unfortunately, dissociation becomes a way of life for some people.
For many, it begins in childhood when faced with difficulties that are too much for a child to handle – such as abuse. When this happens, functionally effective healthy coping skills are not developed fully in the environment in which they grow up.
Dissociation works very well to keep difficulties and struggles undercover, for a while. However, since it was never meant to become a habitual way of coping, it eventually begins to break down. As life becomes more complex in the adult years, the pressure of keeping everything locked up inside becomes too much, memories begin to flash back, begging to be paid attention to and processed, and the old patterns combined with current issues create additional stress.
When exactly this happens varies from person to person, but when it does, it can (and often will) wreak havoc with a person's life and relationships.
The Residual Curse of Dissociation - the undesired state: The memory of a traumatic event can come back to conscious recall suddenly when it is "triggered" by some experience in current life. Depending on the amount of dissociation that has occurred, the person may or may not recognize it as a forgotten event that happened to them.
At times, a person may overreact to current events without knowing why, when there is something in the current situation that connects to an unprocessed past event that was traumatic for them. In some situations, the traumatic memory may be locked in at the age and stage of development the individual was in the first time that major event occurred. When it is accessed again later in life, the person may respond in the way someone at that earlier age and stage of life would.
The Dysfunctional Aspect: Increased use of dissociation can produce dysfunction in coping with daily life, especially from the level of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and beyond, as past traumatic memories that have been blocked off interfere.
Unless these memories are processed and resolved (not dissociated further), they can become increasingly difficult to manage.
Although a person may seem to be able to function fairly well in the short term with dissociation, in the long term this actually decreases the ability to cope and function with the stresses of life.
Dissociation caps people’s keyed up and restless energy underneath. It numbs the body (and emotions/feelings) so that they feel less internal distress.
They may enter psychotherapy and be dissociative but be unaware of its presence. They might not even know what dissociation is. However, they are likely aware of the problems associated with being in a dissociative state.
When dissociation becomes chronic, it can feel unbearable and many people resort to addictive or self-injurious behaviors to seek temporary "relief".
Chronic dissociation severely limits perceptions. At some level people sense they're operating on a different plane than the rest of the world. Although they know something isn’t quite right, they can't put a finger on it.
Dissociation can make people feel invisible and powerless. It impairs their ability to connect with others to such a degree that they are unable to care for themselves or others (e.g. as a mother might care for an infant).
They may have been functioning in the outside world but the real them went underground to some other place. In other words, they are "just not there".
It's most evident in the eyes. When people are experiencing dissociation it will seem to others that they are staring out into space.
People won't notice when they start to dissociate.
Dissociation comes online seamlessly and automatically. That is, you probably won't recognize the moment you start dissociating.
Dissociation is like fake relaxation. It numbs your body and your emotions so you feel nothing. It can be akin to a blissful state and as such, can be deceiving to you and your therapist when you attempt therapy.
Dissociation is also known as a trait, meaning that it is suspected that some people are dissociative all the time- but in clinical literature the focus is generally on dissociation as a state.
Klaas Tuinman -Adapted from various sources Deerfield, NS 2010-20
_________________________________________ Klaas Tuinman M.A. Life Self-Empowerment Facilitation at Dawn Cove Abbey Comments and Questions are welcomed