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What is Dissociation: From the mundane to the extraordinary

Author: Alexandra Mejia, LMHC, C-PD

When most people think of dissociation it seems to have a dark connotation to it. My clients have at times been frightened by the idea that they have experienced dissociation in their lives. In reality though, dissociation is a common part of daily life for pretty much everyone. Dissociation only becomes problematic when it starts to come at inappropriate times and impacts our lives negatively in some regard.

Dissociation is a Skill!

Surprised to hear this? Many people are. In fact, everyone has a tendency to dissociate in normal everyday life. Have you ever gotten in your car and driven to a familiar place only to realize you were somewhere in your mind but not actually present in the car the entire time? Have you ever left work and taken the train or the bus home without really remembering much of the trip at all? Have you ever been “in the zone” at work or completing a personal project, where you have little if any recognition of what is happening around you? Maybe, you’ve watched your favorite show and couldn’t hear anything else around you even when your roommate is trying desperately to get your attention?

All of these are examples of dissociative states. Dissociation is a skill that your mind has to tune out distractions when you need to. It can dull pain when a person is being attacked, numb emotions when we feel overwhelmed, take us to a fantasy world when we are bored, and even helps us stay focused on our work.

So What’s Wrong with Dissociation?

While dissociative states can often be helpful for us, when it becomes a chronic state, or shows up at unwanted times, it can be a real problem. These problematic dissociative states often come from experiencing an obvious single traumatic event or experiencing chronic trauma at some period in a person's life. They can also develop from not-so-obvious traumatic experiences such as chronic childhood invalidation, parental abandonment (divorce, prison, illness, death, etc.), and traumatic attachment to parental figures throughout childhood or during the very early stages of life (infancy and toddlerhood).

What Does Problematic Dissociation Look Like?

Dissociation can take many forms and can be experienced at any time. Here are some examples I’ve come across:

  • During a sexual encounter, not being able to feel your body or experience any emotional or physical enjoyment.

  • Hearing shocking, disturbing or painful news without feeling any emotional response to it.

  • Hanging out with friends but not hearing anything they’re saying, rather, being inside your own head in some manner.

  • Chronically not experiencing any emotion throughout the day, not being able to cry or express emotions to others.

  • Feeling outside of your body, not recognizing your own body, or viewing your daily life as though you are watching a TV show.

  • Cutting yourself to feel pain but not being able to feel the pain.

  • Forgetting mundane or not so mundane events, having chunks or periods of your life that you cannot remember.

  • “Waking up” in a place that you don’t remember traveling to.

  • Noticing that things are never where you left them and not remembering moving these items (especially when living alone).

  • Noticing new items in your home that you don’t remember purchasing.

What if I Recognize Problematic Dissociation in My Life?

If you recognize that you are experiencing problematic dissociation in your life you have likely experienced some form of trauma as I have described earlier. A specialized clinician can help you identify how severe your dissociation is and help you learn to recognize and decrease or even eliminate these states from your day to day life. Individuals who experience problematic dissociation might be diagnosed with disorders such as PTSD, dissociative disorder not otherwise specified, dissociative identity disorder, depersonalization derealization disorder, and borderline personality disorder, amongst others. The best thing to do, is to seek out treatment from a professional who specializes in dissociation and trauma.

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