Defining Dissociation and Reconnecting With Reality
by Jen DuBos, MA LPC
When people hear me say the word “dissociation”, they look at me like they should respond with “gesundheit!”
When I go on to explain what it means, they often look steadily more disturbed until I get to the end. Dissociation is a phenomenon that all people use to varying degrees at one time or another to cope with stress. The clinical definition of psychological dissociation is: a method of coping where one disconnects from one’s own conscious experience of reality– intentionally or unintentionally- due to a perceived threat of danger or annihilation. The user friendly definition of psychological dissociation is avoiding something unpleasant by pretending you are someone, or somewhere, else.
Dissociation is a powerful coping mechanism and can have significant, even severe effects depending on how it is utilized and under what circumstances. Dis-association can by literal and physical, psychological and cognitive, or a combination of both. In many cases, dissociating can be a healthy coping skill – even in dangerous circumstances.
For instance, if you are in an abusive relationship, it is healthy to decide not to associate with the abusive individual anymore. On the more moderate side, vacation is perhaps the most pleasurable form of dissociation, where we literally leave our lives and go somewhere else to have a different experience for a limited period of time. In pop culture around the world, dissociation from reality is actually the most popular form of entertainment. When we go to movies, play video games, or get lost in a good book, we are taking on a new identity and reality, and dissociating from our real lives. In balanced doses, these are all acceptable forms of dissociation. When they take up large quantities of your time and actually harm your real life relationships and ability to function in society, you have gone too far.
When dissociation is overused for entertainment and becomes an escape or addiction, it has been allowed to have sway over too much of your conscious and unconscious mind. In short, if you dis-associate intentionally, excessively, you actually begin to believe an alternate reality is real. You are lying to yourself and believing the lies. This is the unhealthy side of intentional, conscious dissociation. On the deeper side of dissociation- the unintentional or subconscious implementation of detaching from yourself or your surroundings – things become more complicated when deciding what is healthy and what isn’t.
Extreme dissociation happens most often under duress. People most often recall conscious experiences of unintentional dissociation when they’ve been the victim of a crime. During a rape for instance, women will often describe feeling detached from their bodies, or feeling like the were up on the ceiling, looking down on themselves while the crime was occurring as if they were not an unwilling participant, but an observer.
The most extreme form of dissociation is Dissociative Identity Disorder, more popularly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. This rare disorder is the result of long term, traumatic childhood abuse. When children are exposed to complex, adult level stimuli, they have no adult skills for processing the trauma. When the trauma is ongoing, the body literally responds with an instinctual survival technique in order to keep the self from perishing due to shock. It creates an internal protector, separate from the child victim. If the abuse continues, more companions are needed to shoulder the burden of complex emotions and so more entities are created. They are all actually parts of the same core self, but because children have only concrete thinking, not abstract thought, they cannot conceptualize themselves as a complex person with many different facets. So the mind does the best it can and instead of forming a singular, complicated, many faceted, mature personality, it creates numerous one-dimensional personalities. Though this drastic subconscious effort often accomplishes its goal of preserving the life of the core self and the dissociation is therefore healthy, the end goal of therapy is always to help a person with a dissociated identity to re-integrate and become one whole person- as they were always intended to be.
Psychological dissociation is a phenomenon far more prevalent than I ever imagined when I was doing my graduate studies. I only thought of it in the extreme terms of Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or disorders of memory like Fugue or Factitious disorder. I thought life-altering dissociation had to be brought on by severe trauma or horrible abuse. But it turns out, people dissociate regularly and for a whole host of reasons.
If you’re reading this article and realize any part of it relates to you, take careful stock of
1) Why you dissociate
2) How you dissociate
3) How much or little control you have over the process
If you find you dissociate often for more than one or two reasons, and aren’t sure you have control over if, how, and when it happens, give us a call at Stenzel Clinical.