What is Dissociation?

What is Dissociation?

We all dissociate. For example when we day dream, we are usually just taking a break from something that is boring or stressful. Dissociation can take pressure off us in the short term, and allow space to rest and regroup.

For some though, dissociation is more like a default position. For example, some people live in a fantasy world that is more real than the actual world. This leads to an unfulfilled or neglected life, or worse, a life that is so miserable that it drives us deeper into the fantasy world, and away from any possibility of love, creativity, or belonging.

In other cases and specially after trauma, dissociation may show up as separate parts or selves which take over, and make us behave in ways that our everyday self is ashamed of or unable to control. This is called structural dissociation. The dissociated parts may hold survival based functions such as fight, flight or freeze, which our everyday self is uncomfortable with. In some cases, this may become what popular media calls “multiple personalities”.

Yet others experience dissociation so often, there is a sense of not being real, or never being in their bodies. When this happens, it is difficult to have a satisfying, rich life, and people describe themselves as “hungry ghosts”, roaming the world but never quite feeling part of the world.

Whatever the type of dissociation, the process of healing involves association or integration

Signs of dissociation can include:

  • Day dreaming/ living in a fantasy world a lot of the time
  • Repeatedly forgetting to do something you wanted to do
  • Living in the past or future
  • Being repeatedly told you are not listening
  • Feeling numb
  • Not knowing what you are feeling emotionally or physically
  • Living in the head/ denying the body and emotions
  • Being clumsy and bumping into things a lot
  • Chronic lateness
  • Experiencing strong feelings that are connected to the past that replay over and over in the present
  • Having a fantasy friend or person you talk to
  • Addictions as a way of coping with or avoiding life
  • Having large reactions to small things
  • Feeling as if you are not present
  • Feeling as if you are in the wrong body
  • Reacting as if something from the past is happening now
  • Hating your body and living in your head
  • Having physical symptoms for which there is no medical explanation
  • Flashbacks- physical, mental or emotional
  • Gender confusion
  • Chronic neglect of the body
  • “Blanking out” when someone asks you a question
  • Believing you are “different” eg from a different time/era and are “reincarnated”
  • Feeling like the body, or part of it, has disappeared
  • Having altered sensation eg upper limbs feel not as real as the legs
  • Insensitivity to pain in part or all of the body
  • Ongoing difficulties having or maintaining relationships
  • Seeing things differently than usual, eg as if looking through a tunnel
  • Feeling outside of your body
  • Cannot speak or can only whisper
  • Pain or other conditions with no apparent physical cause
  • Finding yourself somewhere but have no idea how you got there
  • Finding new belongings but do not remember buying them
  • See yourself as if looking at another person
  • Do not recognise family or friends
  • Feel that other people, objects and the world are not real
  • Feel that your body is not your own
  • Feel as though you are two different people
  • Hear voices inside your head
  • Feel that you are not responsible for your behaviour
  • Feel confused about who you are
  • See yourself as if you are a long way away
  • Avoiding things for so long you forget they are there
  • Smelling, sensing, or tasting something that is not there
  • Feeling overly detached and disconnected
  • Part of the body is paralysed for a while
  • Losing the ability to swallow for a while
  • Hear sounds from nearby as if they were coming from far away
  • Have an attack that resembles an epileptic seizure
  • Not noticing the stress or tension in the body even when it is extreme

Do any of these signs of dissociation seem familiar? 

  • If you notice that looking at the above list makes you stressed or even dissociated, try the following interventions:
    • Breathe
    • Orientate yourself to the room, name five colours and shapes
    • Stamp your hand with an imaginary time and date stamp for today
    • Push your legs into the floor
    • Use large muscles in some way- walk, run, dance, push, pull, squeeze
    • Pendulate from the strongest to the stressed part of the body – notice the movement backward and forward
    • Bring some of the strength to the stressed part
    • Draw what you are feeling
    • Do a body scan and release tension using the breath
    • Do some exercise
    • Feel something, smell something, or taste something
    • Look around the room and name three objects that you like
    • Look at someone you like
    • Smile at someone or practice “inner smiling”
    • Ask someone trusted to write a word on your hand, and you guess the word.

     These signs of dissociation are adapted from works by Levine, Fisher,  Ross and Halpern, and based on my own clinical practice.

Do any of these signs of dissociation seem familiar? If so, and they are affecting your quality of life, please seek professional help with someone who has had specialized training and experience. The Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute has a list of accredited practitioners on their website, or you can email me for further information