Dissociation is one of the ways your brain protects you. It doesn’t want you to relive a traumatic experience, so it takes steps to conceal what happened.
Most people in life experience loss and heartbreak. However, not everyone understands what it means to experience trauma.
When you’ve lived through a traumatic experience, everything you once knew can be turned upside down. Trauma can shake you to the core and disconnect you from reality.
Trauma can make you doubt your worth and question your identity. It can also destroy your spiritual beliefs and faith in humanity.
This emotional and physical state of shock alerts the brain to leap into action. But if trauma-related dissociation is meant to help you, when does it become something that needs treatment?
“Dissociation, believed to be the oldest psychological defense mechanism we can develop, is the ability to disconnect from our thoughts, feelings, body, actions, and surroundings,” explains Alyson Privitera, LCPC, NCC, CCTP, a counselor based in Baltimore, Maryland.
“When human beings are psychologically overwhelmed, a component of trauma, we seek safety. Sometimes that safety cannot be met at that time by our external world, so we shift to seeking safety internally.”
She explains that the outside world wasn’t within our control, but our inner world is more so.
Trauma is, by definition, an overwhelming emotional response to a horrific event. Dissociation can be a critical part of your survival instinct during trauma. When a horrific event happens, your nervous system kicks in to protect you from mental and physical pain.
“Dissociation is part of the fight-or-flight response, which is an involuntary survival network that helps protect us from threats or danger,” says Sabina Mauro, PsyD, who specializes in treating patients living with trauma in Yardley, Pennsylvania.
“During traumatic experiences, the fight-or-flight is activated in order to protect the individual,” she explains. “If fight-or-flight is not a viable option or if fight-or-flight becomes inactive due to the body feeling overwhelmed, the freeze response is activated.”
While dissociation is a helpful strategy at the time, it can also arise long after the trauma is over, causing problems in your daily life. Dissociation might occur when you encounter a situation or object that reminds your nervous system — consciously or subconsciously — of the trauma.
How can I tell if I’m experiencing dissociation?
Yes! When you dissociate, you may feel disconnected from yourself and from the world around you. You might feel like you are separate from your body, or you might feel like the world around you isn’t real.
Signs and symptoms that you are dissociating include:
🧩 feeling disconnected from your body, like an “out-of-body experience.”
🧩 feeling separate from the world around you
🧩 feeling numb or experiencing emotional detachment
🧩 lacking a sense of identity, or a sense of who you are
🧩 forgetting certain events or personal information
🧩 feeling little physical pain
🧩 having clear, different identities, as in dissociative identity disorder
Importantly, everyone’s experience of dissociation is different. The key is to find out what it feels like for you so that you can notice it when it arises.
It’s often helpful to do this with a mental health professional. Parts of your brain “shut down” during dissociation, so it can be difficult to notice when it’s happening. A therapist can help you recognize the signs that you’re dissociating or that an episode is coming on, so that you can take steps to keep yourself safe.
When does dissociation become a disorder?
While many people may experience dissociation, often related to past trauma, the symptoms don’t always meet the criteria for a mental health disorder.
Episodes of dissociation vary in length; they might last a few hours or days, or they could last much longer, into weeks or months. If you learned to dissociate from a young age, dissociation may be a common experience as an adult, and it might be the main way that you cope with stress. This may signal a dissociative disorder.
As dissociation is the body’s response to extreme stress, research from 2014 suggests it can be present, in some form, in almost all psychiatric disorders. This includes anxiety disorders, panic disorder, and depression.
How can I overcome this facing and acknowledging my fears and dissociations?
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