Dissociation: A mental disconnection from what is going on around you

We all suffer from periods of dissociation where our brain just ‘logs off’ for a time. Normal dissociation may be that you are driving to a destination, and you suddenly arrive, however you have not been attentive to the journey and wonder how you got there!

Small children, on the other hand, frequently are told off for being inattentive, particularly at school where they may be bored and are often told to ‘stop daydreaming’. However, these children are frequently disinterested in what they are learning or bored and dissociate from the classroom activity. Hence, not all dissociative states are a product of psychological dysfunction, and we can ‘snap out of it’ when someone seeks our attention.

Dissociative Disorders

When the disconnection from reality becomes intense and prolonged causing a person to no longer lead a normal functional life.

There are three main types of dissociative disorders, these disorders generally manifest because of early childhood, abuse, neglect and/or trauma. This leads to an impaired awareness of our: Actions, Thoughts, Physical Sensitivity, and our Identity. These disorders are adaptive and help us to cope with negative feelings and experiences.

1. Depersonalisation/Derealisation

Lowest severity of symptoms

Depersonalisation may feel like you are watching the world from outside of your mind and body, you are detached from yourself. Things may not appear real to you. Some people report it to be like watching yourself in a movie!

Derealisation may result in feelings of being numb, being deadpan and having a monotone speech with no emotive facial displays, people in this space often have trouble forming relationships as they can appear ‘shut off’ from others. In its severest form, derealisation may result in feeling lightheaded or the experience of brain fog. You may lose track of time and find it difficult to recognise familiar faces, places, and objects, you may also find it difficult to learn new tasks. These issues often lead the person to experience significant levels of anxiety!

2. Dissociative Amnesia

Dissociative amnesia can be complex and confusing to the person having such an experience. You may find that you block information and forget normal day to day needs and tasks i.e. paying bills, confusion about how to use public transport, these people can often become disoriented. In general, the person having such an experience most likely has trouble recalling the trauma that triggered these symptoms in the first place. Dissociative amnesia can be broken down into a number of categories, these are:

Localised amnesia – I cannot remember the trauma! Generally, they can remember other life events.

Systematised amnesia – Forgetting certain aspects of the trauma, for example, who perpetrated the trauma or where it occurred.

Continuous amnesia – Forgetting each new event after an experience, this continues, and the person affected can only remember what is in the present. This condition is not always associated with traumatic events.

Dissociative Fugue – This term is used to explain when a person becomes confused about ‘who they are’ and they can lose ingrained skills such as how to use a computer, or how to perform their job. This is an uncommon experience for people experiencing the first two categories of Dissociation however can be very common in people who experience Dissociative Identity Disorder!

3. Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)

This type of dissociation is at the severest end of the dissociative disorders, people who experience DID most often have experienced significant childhood trauma that may have resulted from a one-off episode however most commonly there have been repetitive traumas throughout the person’s childhood. DID can be the result of childhood neglect, repeated physical violence and/or sexual assault. There are two main types of Dissociative Identity Disorder, these are Covert and Overt.

The person may experience sudden shifts in the way they see the world, the way they think, feel and perceive the world is impacted. They may take on the characteristics of other people and may hear their own voice however feel that it is coming from somewhere else and feel as if they are observing themselves, they know that this is an unusual experience.

Over DID is the experience where the person experiences a direct shift in personalities which are referred to as alters. A person may experience 2 or more different personalities and are not aware of the shift between the personality types, who often have different names, genders, nationalities and ages. These people have distinctly different personality traits, they will talk and act differently, they often have different tastes in food, religious beliefs and knowledge of the world, in some instances, the personality may be so young that they are non-verbal.

As there is a shift in personality, the new personality totally takes over the mind and body and the host person is generally not aware that this is occurring. They can come back to their primary personality and find groceries that they did not remember buying, or they may find themselves in a location and not recall why and how they got there. This group of people are at high risk of self-harm and unfortunately suicide.

Summing it all up!

In the professional world dissociation is an accepted symptom of many psychological disturbances, from generalised anxiety across the spectrum to DID. There is however still a great debate in regards to Dissociative Identity Disorder in the academic world. Many professionals have conflicting views on DID and it is very challenging in regard to diagnosis. However these symptoms are treatable, the research suggests that psychological therapy for any Dissociative Disorder can be processed with a Psychologist that conducts Trauma-Focused Therapy in a safe environment with the client. At Mind Up, our practitioners are all trained in Trauma-Focused Therapy and come from a place of empathy and care to assist our clients seeking such treatment to improve their overall quality of life.