What is Dissociation and Why Do I Do It?

 In Mental Health

Dissociation is a complex and often misunderstood psychological phenomenon that can affect individuals in various ways. It’s a term that may be familiar to some, yet its intricacies and implications are often overlooked. In this blog post, we’ll delve into what dissociation is and what it isn’t, explore why it occurs, its relationship to trauma and the window of tolerance, and discuss strategies for coping and healing.


What is Dissociation?

Dissociation refers to a state of detachment from one’s surroundings, emotions, thoughts, or identity. It can manifest in various forms and is on a spectrum ranging from mild detachment and “zoning out” to severe disconnection from reality. Dissociation often sounds like a big scary word, but the reality is that all of us dissociate to some degree at some times. One example of this is when you drive home the same way every day from work and one day you find yourself at home, not remembering completely how you got there. Other experiences of dissociation include feeling as though one is observing oneself from outside the body, experiencing gaps in memory, or feeling emotionally numb.

What Isn’t Dissociation?

It’s crucial to differentiate dissociation from daydreaming or zoning out. While both involve a temporary shift in attention, dissociation involves a more profound disconnection from reality and self-awareness. The roots of dissociation are also important to understand. A person may “zone out” because they are bored, or they dissociate or detach from the present reality as a coping mechanism in response to overwhelming stress or trauma.

Why Do We Dissociate?

Why do we dissociate? Dissociation typically occurs as a defence mechanism in response to trauma or distressing experiences. When faced with overwhelming emotions or situations, the mind may “shut off” certain thoughts, feelings, or memories to protect itself from further harm. This can be especially common in individuals who have experienced abuse, neglect, or other forms of trauma.

Trauma and Dissociation

Trauma is a significant factor in the development and perpetuation of dissociative symptoms. Individuals who have experienced trauma may dissociate as a means of self-protection, distancing themselves from distressing memories or emotions. Additionally, repeated experiences of dissociation can further disrupt the integration of memories and contribute to ongoing difficulties in emotional regulation and identity formation.


The Window of Tolerance

The concept of the “window of tolerance” is often used to explain the relationship between dissociation, trauma, and emotional regulation. The window of tolerance represents the optimal state of arousal where an individual can effectively process and respond to stimuli. However, during traumatic experiences, the window of tolerance may narrow, leading to either hyperarousal (fight or flight response) or hypoarousal (freeze response). Dissociation can be seen as a form of hypoarousal, where the mind seeks to escape overwhelming stimuli by disconnecting from reality. Dissociation is a very adaptable form of survival, however there may be times where the danger and the trauma have passed and your nervous system continues to go into hypoarousal and dissociate. At this point, dissociation no longer feels adaptive and seeking support can be helpful for your healing journey.

Healing from Trauma and Dissociation

While dissociation can be distressing and challenging to manage, there are strategies for coping and healing. Seeking support from a therapist or mental health professional who specializes in trauma-informed care can be instrumental in understanding and addressing dissociative symptoms. A therapist may support you in learning how to be connected to your body and your surroundings again in a safe way. This often takes time and practice, and can be paired with trauma processing of the events that trigger the dissociation response. Additionally, practicing grounding techniques, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, or sensory stimulation, can help individuals reconnect with the present moment and regulate their emotions. Building a strong support network and engaging in self-care activities can also aid in the healing process.

Dissociation is a multifaceted phenomenon that arises from the interplay of psychological, neurological, and environmental factors. By understanding its underlying mechanisms and exploring its relationship to trauma and the window of tolerance, we can better support individuals who experience dissociative symptoms. Through compassionate care, validation, and trauma-informed interventions, individuals can learn to cope with dissociation and work towards healing and integration.

If you are interested in learning more and talking to a therapist about dissociation, reach out today for a free consult call

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