Oct 24th 2023
It is common for people to experience episodes of dissociation in everyday life that do not cause concerns or impairments. However, some people experience dissociation due to severe trauma and may be a symptom of a mental health disorder. In these cases, learning strategies to manage dissociative episodes and the impact they can cause may be helpful.
Dissociation is the experience of feeling disconnected or detached from reality or the self. It can cause memory loss or a feeling that things are unreal or dream-like. Many people experience mild or brief dissociation occasionally, but some experience severe or long-term dissociation, which can be caused by trauma and severe mental health conditions .
In many cases, dissociation can be managed without professional intervention, particularly if it is brief and does not cause a risk of harm. However, treatment may be necessary for individuals with a dissociative disorder or additional symptoms that cause a risk of harm or impair quality of life .
Dissociation can cause several signs and symptoms that vary from person to person. Common terms used to describe some of these symptoms include :
Mild dissociation can happen to anyone at any time. For example, it is common to ‘zone out’ while driving or when becoming engrossed in a book or film. However, more severe instances of dissociation are often a result of exposure to trauma and are used as a coping strategy or defense mechanism .
Dissociation can occur during a traumatic event, such as witnessing war or conflict, being involved in a life-threatening circumstance, or experiencing sexual or physical abuse. In these situations, individuals may experience dissociation as a coping mechanism to protect themselves from severe physical or emotional distress by disconnecting from reality .
It can be common for people to experience this type of dissociation short-term, returning to a sense of reality once the danger or distressing situation has passed. Others may experience dissociation as a long-term condition if it occurs repeatedly following the traumatic event .
For example, a child exposed to sexual or physical abuse may dissociate during these experiences. As children cannot process or understand these types of traumas, dissociation becomes a vital and necessary tool to cope with their distress .
This can contribute to an inability to develop other coping strategies, leading to prolonged and repeated dissociation when exposed to any stressful or distressing situation. This can potentially lead to dissociative disorders, such as dissociative amnesia, dissociative identity disorder, and depersonalization-derealization disorder .
The memory of the traumatic event becomes inaccessible to the individual, so distress is not experienced in the moment or by remembering the event.
This memory loss can be associated with a specific traumatic event, the details of which may be forgotten for a brief time or up to several years. However, it may also relate to the loss of extensive periods or significant details unrelated to trauma, such as personal details or information about others .
The brain separates the traumatic experience from the individual's thoughts, emotions, and reality, leading to a splitting of their personalities and a feeling that the trauma was experienced by someone else.
DID, which was previously referred to as multiple personality disorder (MPD), is characterized by several identities, known as alters, who may have various genders, ages, nationalities, and personalities. It is common for people with DID also to experience amnesia, forgetting what happened while a different alter was being shown .
This disorder is characterized by a potentially consistent feeling of being disconnected or detached from reality or the self. It may cause the individual to feel they are experiencing their life as though in a movie or dream. It can cause cognitive impairments with concentration or memory and feeling out of control or slowed down .
It may not be possible to stop dissociation from occurring, particularly for individuals with a severe dissociative disorder. However, several strategies can be used to help in coping with or reducing the impact of dissociation, such as :
It is vital to seek professional help if you experience dissociative episodes regularly that impact your quality of life, reduce your social or professional functioning, cause emotional distress, put you at risk of harm, or worsen symptoms of other mental health conditions .
People with a dissociative disorder, a history of trauma, or a mental health condition in which dissociation occurs, may be recommended to utilize talk therapy to help with their symptoms. Various types of therapy are available that can help reduce the impact of past trauma and teach positive coping strategies to help manage emotional distress, such as :
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a specialized type of therapy used to treat PTSD and other trauma-related conditions, such as dissociative disorders. It involves revisiting trauma memories and can be potentially harmful if not administered at a time when the individual can cope with this or by a well-trained professional .
Although there are no evidence-based medications for dissociation and dissociative disorders, various medications could potentially be beneficial in managing the condition or co-existing symptoms and conditions, such as low mood, anxiety, self-harming behaviors, or insomnia. This could include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers .
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