Most of us couldn’t get through the day without some kind of dissociation. Normally, dissociation takes the pressure off us in the short term, allowing space to rest and regroup. For example when we briefly day dream or tell white lies-to ourselves (like “I’ll do it later”), we are taking a little break from something that is boring, stressful, or onerous. At this end of the continuum, it is a gentle and useful form of escape or avoidance.
After prolonged or repeated stress or trauma however, patterns of dissociation can become more frequent, more compelling or more problematic. At this end of the continuum, dissociation is an automatic fixed pattern or highly compartmentalised state which is a defense against the terror, powerlessness, or feeling trapped experienced in the past. Symptoms can include loss of time, loss of memory, loss of sense of identity, confusion about the self, somatic conditions, loss of connection, psychosis, loss of contact with reality, significant self- neglect and other issues.
Sometimes dissociation can change our “age” from a functional everyday life adult self to younger child states- this is called structural dissociation (Steele, Boon & Van Der Harte, 2017), and it may vary from normal and healthy to maladaptive.
At the severe end of the continuum, almost anything can trigger dissociation, even positives for example the thought of going out of the house, the sight of someone smiling, a warm tone of voice, a question about how we are going, even the thought of something pleasant, and of course the need to avoid something stressful can also activate various forms of dissociation.
Exercise: Look at the list below and tick which forms of dissociation you are most familiar with: