What is dissociation, what are associative disorders and how to find a therapist for dissociation
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 associative 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 associative disorders, such as associative amnesia, depersonalisation disorder and associative identity disorder. If you have a associative disorder you might experience severe dissociation symptoms for long periods or even constantly. If you are concerned that you have a associative disorder, it is important to seek professional help.
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 dissociation 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, dissociate disorders involve feeling disconnected from the world and/or yourself on an on-going 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 which 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:
Depersonalisation-derealisation disorder: Feeling as though 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 recognise 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): Characterised 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.
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.
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.