by Harley Therapy
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

In a dissociative state, you might feel like you are not connected to either your own body, feelings or the world around you. For example, you may think about a very upsetting event that happened to you but have no feelings about it.

What is dissociation?

Dissociation is a mental process that causes a lack of connection or disconnection between your thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity. In a dissociative state, you might feel like you are not connected to either your own body, feelings or the world around you. For example, you may think about a very upsetting event that happened to you but have no feelings about it.

Lots of us will experience dissociation at some point. You may have noticed that on a familiar journey you have managed to get from start to finish without noticing anything you have walked past. However, you might also dissociate during or for a short time after a traumatic event or when you are very stressed. Episodes of dissociation can also occur as symptoms of other conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

More severe forms of dissociation are seen in dissociative disorders, such as dissociative amnesia, depersonalisation disorder and dissociative identity disorder. If you have a dissociative disorder you might experience severe dissociation symptoms for long periods or even constantly. If you are concerned that you have a dissociative disorder, it is important to seek professional help.

What are the symptoms of dissociation?

Symptoms and signs of dissociation may include:

  • feeling disconnected from yourself
  • feeling disconnected from your surroundings
  • difficulty handling intense emotions
  • feeling emotionally numb or cut off from your emotions
  • feeling emotionally detached from your experiences
  • sudden, unexpected changes in mood, for example feeling unbearably sad without an apparent reason
  • difficulty knowing how you are feeling
  • feeling that the world is unreal or distorted in some way
  • memory lapses, such as forgetting things that have happened to you
  • identity confusion, for example behaving in a way that you would not normally but without being able to stop yourself
  • identity alteration, where your identity or personality changes

What causes dissociation and dissociative disorders?

Dissociation can develop as a defence mechanism in order to cope with stress or overwhelming, traumatic events. Children who have grown up in a very stressful environment, such as a dysfunctional, abusive or violent home, may develop dissociation to be able to cope with difficult experiences and to reduce distress caused by traumatic events.

However, if dissociation continues to be used as a major way of coping with emotions in adulthood, you may automatically disconnect from situations that are perceived as dangerous or threatening. This can leave you feeling disconnected from situations in ordinary life and unable to protect yourself in conditions of real danger.

While many people will experience dissociation from time to time, dissociative disorders involve feeling disconnected from the world and/or yourself on an ongoing basis. Repetitive childhood physical and/or sexual abuse and other forms of trauma are most commonly associated with the development of dissociative disorders.

What are dissociative disorders?

Dissociative disorders are conditions that involve feeling disconnected from yourself and/or the world for long periods or all of the time, often from childhood. Dissociative disorders can cause substantial distress and make everyday life challenging. Three of the most common dissociative disorders are:

Depersonalization-derealisation disorder

Feeling as though you experience your thoughts, feelings, and emotions as out-of-body experiences. You may feel that the world is unreal or as if you are watching yourself in a movie. Some may experience a loss of feeling in parts of their bodies or the inability to recognize themselves in the mirror.

Dissociative amnesia

Experiencing episodes of not remembering essential personal details or past events. Sometimes, you might find that you don’t know where you are or how you got there.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID)

Characterized by the existence of two or more distinct identities within one person, also known as multiple personality disorder. Personalities may or may not be aware of the presence of other personalities, and may exert control over the individual's behaviour at different times or in different circumstances.

What are the treatments for dissociation?

Psychotherapy is often used in the treatment for dissociative disorders. Psychotherapists can help you to work through the trauma that may have caused the development of dissociative states or a dissociative disorder to develop more helpful coping mechanisms. Therapy can also help you to find ways to manage your emotions and to cope with stress more effectively.

Some individuals with a dissociative disorder benefit from eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). EMDR therapy requires you to move your eyes from side to side, following the movement of some kind of stimulus, while talking to your therapist. This allows the part of the brain responsible for memory to “let go” of the traumatic memories so that they lose their intensity. To find a therapist specialising in EMDR and dissociative disorders, see recommended EMDR therapists here.

There are no medications that treat dissociative disorders, however there are medications that can help with coexisting conditions or symptoms that you might experience because of a dissociative disorder, such as depression and anxiety.

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How to find a therapist for dissociation

Whether you would like to overcome your feelings of emotional numbness and disconnection or you are looking for treatment for a dissociative disorder, talking therapy with a psychotherapist or psychologist can help. It is important that you find a therapist for dissociation who is experienced and understands how to work with clients who dissociate.

To find a therapist to overcome dissociation or to manage a dissociative disorder, you can use the Harley Therapy search to find psychotherapists and psychologists who specialise in these conditions across the UK and worldwide by Skype. To book an appointment online now, click here or choose a recommended therapist below.

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