This is a special case of a ‘defence mechanism’.
It is often treated as special and rather mysterious condition; generally a ‘bad’ thing as it can be a disturbing experience. However, dissociation can make sense once we reflect on how it may have ‘looked after’ us sometime in the past.
Once its purpose for us becomes clear, we can respond to this feature more constructively.
First, how does dissociation present?
with well-known mental health problems such as depression, anxiety including suicidal thoughts and actions.
with a sense of detachment from ourself; seeing ourselves at a distance; as if in a movie.
with an unclear sense of identity (“who am I”).
with significant problems in relationships at home or work and other important areas of our life.
A presence of multiple people talking. This internal dialogue is normal for all, but it is unsettling when it is rowdy.
So, dissociation is disruptive. How?
- By persistent disruption of our ability to remember events. This is more patterned than the simple, common forgetfulness most of us experience from time to time.
- Wandering that leads to confusion; we wonder how we got where we are.
- Awareness of two or more very different ‘identities’ appearing at unpredictable times.
- Feeling detached from others around us, sometimes regarding those others as ungenuine, if not robotic.
Such reactions visibly impact on our consciousness, our identity, our memory and on our actions.
The NHS has a specific page on this topic available to you.
Dissociation often develops in childhood, or after a major trauma. It is a coping skill used to separate me from those traumatic events and memories in my life. In effect, we “step out of ourselves”. It worked at the time – perhaps to anaethestise us from a clear and present threat.
If we can remove and process that threat, then the dissociative behaviour may not re-appear but the condition can be return in times of stress as a learned coping skill. This might work as long as it does not get in the way of everyday life. However, dissociation does tend to get in the way; other people notice our change in behaviour and can be unsettled by it.
Unusually, given the focus of this website, I am not going to identify small, safe experiments connected to dissociation. They exist, but it is best that you seek some professional guidance first of all and to complete any repair work with specialist support.
I mention the phenomenon, here, as it needs to see the light of day. It is a feature I meet fairly regularly. It is treatable: with guidance from an experienced and well-trained therapist. I emphasise this as it is possible for other people to re-trigger unhelpful dissociative responses. Everyday conversations may, quite unintentionally, lead us to want to escape. There are everyday words that can trigger such an escape. It is not possible to predict what those words might be. Skilful listening is needed to scan language that might prove helpful and unhelpful.
Therapy is an organised and focused activity during which experiences of dissociation can be discussed in order to develop new coping techniques. In order for new coping techniques to be learned and become effective, it is highly likely that one or more trauma will be discussed in an attempt to integrate the trauma into our sense of self; a sense of being ‘one’ once again – not two or more.