Dissociation – What is it?

Many people may experience dissociation (dissociate) during their life. It is a mental process of disconnecting from one’s thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity.
If you dissociate, you may feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you. For example, you may feel detached from your body or feel as though the world around you is unreal. Remember, everyone’s experience of dissociation is different.
Dissociation is one way the mind copes with too much stress, such as during a traumatic event.
Experiences of dissociation can last for a relatively short time (hours or days) or for much longer (weeks or months).
If you dissociate for a long time, especially when you are young, you may develop a dissociative disorder. The dissociative disorders that need professional treatment include dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, depersonalisation disorder and dissociative identity disorder.
When might you dissociate?

For many people, dissociation is a natural response to trauma that they can’t control. It could be a response to a one-off traumatic event or ongoing trauma and abuse
Some people choose to dissociate as a way of calming down or focusing on a task, or as part of a religious or cultural ritual.
You might experience dissociation as a symptom of a mental health problem, for example post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder.
You could experience dissociation as a side effect of alcohol or some medication, or when coming off some medication.

So what is dissociative amnesia?

It occurs when a person blocks out certain information, usually associated with a stressful or traumatic event, leaving them unable to remember important personal information. With this disorder, the degree of memory loss goes beyond normal forgetfulness and includes gaps in memory for long periods of time or of memories involving the traumatic event
It is not the same as simple amnesia, which involves a loss of information from memory, usually as the result of disease or injury to the brain. With dissociative amnesia, the memories still exist but are deeply buried within the person’s mind and cannot be recalled. However, the memories might resurface on their own or after being triggered by something in the person’s surroundings. There is some debate among professionals as to when “buried” memories may not always be true, and some experts warn against about the risks of “recovering” false traumatic memories. It is more common in women than in men. The frequency of dissociative amnesia tends to increase during stressful or traumatic periods, such as during wartime or after a natural disaster

So what is dissociative fugue?

Dissociative fugue (formerly called psychogenic fugue) is a psychological state in which a person loses awareness of their identity or other important autobiographical information and engages in some form of unexpected travel. People who experience a dissociative fugue may suddenly find themselves in a place, such as the beach or at work, with no memory of traveling there. Similarly, they may find themselves somewhere in their home, such as a closet or in the corner of a room, with no memory of getting there.
The onset of this is usually sudden and follows a traumatic or highly stressful event associated with natural disasters and wars, as well as severe marital or financial distress, alcohol abuse, depression, and a history of child abuse. There may be a genetic link, because individuals with dissociative disorders sometimes have family members with the same condition
This dissociative disorder is relatively rare. The frequency of dissociative fugue tends to increase during stressful or traumatic periods, such as during wartime or after a natural disaster

So what is depersonalisation disorder?

This disorder is marked by periods of feeling disconnected or detached from one’s body and thoughts (depersonalisation). The disorder is sometimes described as feeling like you are observing yourself from outside your body or like being in a dream. People with this disorder do not lose contact with reality; they realise that things are not as they appear. An episode of this disorder can last anywhere from a few minutes to (rarely) many years.

Not much is known about the causes of this disorder, but biological, psychological, and environmental factors might play a role. Like other dissociative disorders are often triggered by intense stress or a traumatic event — such as war, abuse, accidents, disasters, or extreme violence — that the person has experienced or witnessed.

So what is dissociative identity disorder?

Nearly all of us we have experienced mild dissociation, which is like daydreaming or getting lost in the moment while working on a project. However this disorder is a severe form of dissociation, a mental process which produces a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity. It is thought to have stemmed from a combination of factors that may include trauma experienced by the person with the disorder. The dissociative aspect is thought to be a coping mechanism — the person literally dissociates themselves from a situation or experience that’s too violent, traumatic, or painful to assimilate with his conscious self.

While the causes of this disorder are still vague, research indicates that it is likely a psychological response to interpersonal and environmental stresses, particularly during early childhood years when emotional neglect or abuse may interfere with personality development. Dissociation may happen when there has been persistent neglect or emotional abuse, even when there has been no overt physical or sexual abuse. Findings show that in families where parents are frightening and unpredictable, the children may become dissociative.