Most of us have moments when we space out and detach from situations we find overly stressful or emotionally taxing, but what about when these moments become a regular occurrence in dealing with everyday challenges? Dissociation can be a sign of a more serious mental health condition.
Have you ever felt completely disconnected from what’s going on around you? Most people will have at least one time in their lives where they feel almost outside their own body, both emotionally and physically detached from what is happening. This sensation might be brought on by the use of drugs or alcohol, experiencing a traumatic event, or being overwhelmed by stress or strong feelings.
For some people, particularly survivors of childhood trauma and those living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or anxiety, feelings of dissociation and depersonalization may be a more common occurrence, and cause disruptions to daily life. Understanding why this happens, and how to reconnect during these moments, can help promote healing and better mental wellness.
What is Dissociation?
Dissociation occurs when a person feels disconnected from themselves and the world around them. It can be a healthy response to boredom, stress, trauma, fear or emotional overload, allowing ourselves to avoid some of the strong physiological responses to a negative situation. However, if dissociation becomes a regular response to events in your daily life, this could be an indicator that it is a symptom of unresolved trauma or an underlying mental health issue.
Symptoms of Dissociation
While some people are keenly aware of when they begin to dissociate, others may have a harder time identifying what is happening. Some common symptoms of dissociation include:
The Connection Between Dissociation, Depersonalization and Mental Health
Because the brain tends to dissociate when it is overwhelmed and unable to process something that is happening, frequent occurrences of dissociation indicate that a larger problem may be hiding under the surface.
Childhood Trauma and Dissociation
Childhood trauma is a major contributing factor to dissociation, particularly for children who have experienced ongoing abuse. Used as a way to try to manage the fear, pain and shame of abuse, this coping mechanism can extend into adulthood, particularly if the trauma is not addressed through treatment and other coping mechanisms for stress are not developed. As an adult, dissociation might be experienced as long gaps in memory, or as depersonalization during stressful events, such as arguments with a romantic partner.
Mental Health Disorders linked to Dissociation
Dissociation, including depersonalization, is a recognized symptom of a variety of mental health disorders, including:
If you have been diagnosed with one of these disorders, or suspect you may have one, it is possible that your dissociation is linked to this. Following up with a mental health professional can help to identify the source of this symptom and determine appropriate treatment.
Substance Abuse Disorders and Dissociation
Substance use has strong links to dissociation, with many people drinking or using drugs specifically to disengage from their emotions or reality. Because dissociation is not only an effect of substance use, but often an underlying factor in addiction, it is important to examine this symptom closely to identify and treat root causes in order to fully address a substance.
Complications of Dissociation
Dissociation is a serious indicator that underlying trauma or mental health issues are affecting your daily life and overall sense of wellbeing. Without professional treatment, dissociation can create significant impacts to relationships and mental health, including things like:
Seeking treatment for dissociation will help not only determine the root cause of the symptom, but address key underlying factors and develop other forms of coping for stress and trauma that are healthier.
Thom Kessler, LMFT, RAS
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
Registered Addiction Specialist
Marriage & Family Therapist and Registered Addiction Specialist