Understanding Dissociation & Dissociative Disorders
Daydreaming is something we all do from time to time, and it's perfectly normal. But for those with a mental health problem called "dissociation", their “sense of disconnect” from their physical world is often much more complicated than daydreaming.
Dissociation is a disruption in how your mind manages information. In a way it is breaking away or escaping from your own feelings, thoughts, surroundings, and memories. It can impact your perception of time and sense of identity.
When it's difficult to process traumatic memories of the past, dissociative disorders develop as a way of coping. Symptoms, such as amnesia and alternate identities, partly depend on the type of dissociative disorder you have. Stress can temporarily worsen symptoms which makes them more obvious.
Symptoms often wane on their own –either weeks, days, or hours. However, you may need treatment if dissociation occurs because you've had an immensely distressing experience (or in some cases, when you have a mental disorder such as schizophrenia).
These depend on the type of dissociative disorder you have, but can include:
Sense of being detached from yourself (and your emotions)
Amnesia (memory loss) of certain people, events, time periods, and personal information
Perception that things and people around you are unreal or distorted
Mixed up or muddied sense of identity
Lack of ability to cope well with emotional/professional stress
Major difficulties/problems at work and in personal relationships (or other important aspects of your life)
Mental health problems, e.g. anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviors
WHAT’S HAPPENING WHEN YOU DISSOCIATE
When you dissociate, you're likely to think you're not real or the physical world isn't real. You may see changes in the way you feel, like:
having an out-of-body experience
feeling emotionally numb
feeling little (or no) pain
feeling like you're light-headed or your heart is pounding
having an altered sense of time
having a tunnel vision
not remembering how you got somewhere
having intense flashbacks that FEEL real
hearing voices in your head
becoming immobile/feeling paralyzed
getting absorbed in a fantasy world that seems real
Dissociative disorders often develop as a way of coping with trauma. You may disconnect from the present moment if something very bad is happening. Experts call this peritraumatic dissociation, which is a technique your mind uses to protect you from the full effect of the distressing experience you're having.
Peritraumatic dissociation can occur when you’re in situations like:
Childhood abuse (i.e. emotional, sexual, or physical)
Motor vehicle accidents
If these troubling experiences are happening repeatedly over an extended period (or recurring), you may form severe types of dissociation called dissociative disorders. You may forget things, leave your normal consciousness, or form different identities in your mind –all happening involuntarily. Meaning, they occur automatically and most times you're not aware that you're breaking away.
Other disorders associated with dissociation can include:
Suicidal thoughts & behavior
Depression & anxiety disorders
Alcoholism & drug use disorders
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Sleep disorders, including insomnia, nightmares & sleepwalking
Physical symptoms e.g. lightheadedness or non-epileptic seizures
Children with dissociative disorders may show warning signs, such as:
having imaginary friends
staring out the window frequently
forgetting they've done or said something
having ADHD or other learning disabilities
Your doctor will conduct a physical exam and ask about past mental or physical health issues. They may check a sample of your blood, run tests to rule out a different illness, or order an EEG to rule out certain types of seizure disorders. It's also best to inform them if you're taking any medication or illicit drugs.
Your doctor may then refer you to a mental health professional, e.g. psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychiatric social worker. They'd want to know any severely disturbing events you've had in the past.
The tests they may give you include:
- Structured Clinical Interview for Dissociation
- Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES)
There's not one drug to cure dissociation, but it's highly possible to get better with a combination of medication and psychotherapy, such as phasic trauma treatment, family treatment, cognitive behavior therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization & reprocessing, and hypnotherapy.
Hypnotherapy helps you uncover and process your painful memories easily as you're in a relaxed state. You should only do this with a professional hypnotherapist trained in dissociative disorders. Reach out to JarvisHypnotherapy so we can help you.
People with dissociative disorders escape reality in unhealthy, involuntary ways –which cause problems in everyday life functioning. Although treating dissociative disorders can be difficult, many learn new, healthy ways of coping and lead productive lives.