What is dissociation?

A lot of trauma survivors suffer from dissociation, but you don’t hear people talking about it much. There even seems to be an absence of understanding among therapists, which I have seen first-hand on more than one occasion. I remember one specific group session in hospital, in which a woman completely dissociated. The experienced and highly qualified therapist running the group was inept. She had no idea what to do or what was happening.

What is dissociation?
Dissociation is hard to define, because it means different things to different people. Some researchers say that everyone experiences it to a degree, as it exists on a continuum. For instance, most people who drive have at some point zoned out and switched to autopilot while driving, paying no attention to the detail of their journey.

The kind of dissociation that results from trauma is very different, and can take a range of forms. It can be an experience; the feeling of floating into a daze, or the switch to an entirely different personality or state of mind.

What is trauma-related dissociation?
Dissociation is an amazing survival mechanism the brain uses for defence; a way of blocking out something unbearable. It is a very normal response to overwhelming trauma (by this I mean the perceived threat of annihilation, whether physical or psychological). By shutting down aspects of consciousness, dissociation enables us to survive an event that might otherwise be unbearably painful.

In trauma-related dissociation there is a separation of mental functions which would normally operate together or simultaneously. It results in a failure to connect various elements such as specific memories and emotions. For instance, we may be left with just a visual memory and no recollection of the feelings or emotions we felt at the time.

Dissociated emotions, feelings and memories
Dissociation creates an ‘unintegrated’ experience that can take on a life or identity distinct from our main stream of consciousness. For me, it means that the sexual abuse I suffered is dissociated from my memory. I don’t connect with it as something that actually happened to me. I can get angry or sad about it, but only with a view that it happened to an innocent 10 year old.

Dissociated parts
Dissociation has been called ‘a way of escaping psychologically when we cannot escape physically’. That makes a lot of sense to me, as there is no way to physically escape from your own thoughts.

It fits with my experience of switching between dissociated parts of myself. I can flip very suddenly from my functional, in-control self to a reckless version of me. She is incredibly self-destructive. She has tried to kill me on several occasions. I often don’t recall completely what has happened when she is in control. Another part is very young and fragile. When she has taken over I can be panicked into complete dissociation – the inability to be present at all in the here-and-now.

More info
This is only a short post on a very large topic. The PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors) website is a great resource on dissociation and dissociative disorders.


Photo credit: SOCIALisBETTER Creative Commons


5 Comments Add yours

  1. siylasia says:

    I agree that there needs to be further research and understanding with dissociation. More open-mindedness in the mental health field in general, really. Luckily, I have a therapist who is very lovely and tries her best to understand. … I would like to tell you, that I understand as much as I can as someone with a seperate experience. Sharing and creating posts such as this is a drop in the bucket for understanding dissociation. When I become a therapist, I will use my own experience and try my best to spread awareness too. Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your positive thoughts. I’m lucky to also have a therapist who knows about dissociation, but I’ve met several who don’t have a clue!


      1. siylasia says:

        I totally hear ya! I’ve met tons of people who have been harmful in their ignorance. All we can do is try to educate them and if they don’t open their minds then just move on. No one’s opinion is more important than your own. Too bad though, hm?


  2. Not So Cold says:

    I am an in-patient at a clinic for trauma and chronic depression. I was only recently diagnosed with PTSD and through the trained observation of my medical team, they noticed that I frequently dissociate. I had no idea. Now I carry a small toy and a bottle of smelling salts to help keep me grounded (but sometimes, honestly, I do want to go away when I feel panic creeping up).

    Yours is the first post on WP that I have seen that addresses dissociation head on. Thank you for sharing. Keep writing! I’m glad that you liked my post so that I could find my way to your blog. 🙂

    I wish you the best of luck with your hard work for treatment and recovery. Hang in there!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Laura Black says:

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad you found this useful. I’m also glad that you’ve got a team there who understand dissociation and can equip you to manage it. When I was an inpatient, there was a woeful lack of knowledge in this area and it meant that several patients weren’t kept safe. Good luck with your recovery. Laura


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