5 Signs You’re Experiencing Dissociation


Daydreams are innocuous forms of escapism that we use when we are bored or stressed. But, there are other ways our bodies escape from stress. One way is through dissociation. According to the American Psychological Association, dissociation is a defense mechanism where we unconsciously push away conflicting or threatening emotions from our subconscious mind. It’s a form of compartmentalizing your feelings so that you do not have to deal with them.  

You may feel distant from your emotions, thoughts, surroundings, and memories. Within the umbrella of dissociative symptoms, there are two that help categorize the experience– detachment-dissociation and compartmentalization-dissociation. Detachment-dissociation refers to feeling like you have been taken out of your body. It can come in the form of derealization or depersonalization. It can be a startling experience. 

The other form of dissociation is compartmentalization-dissociation. It refers to when your mind pushes aside distressing moments or experiences. This usually results in memory loss. 

Below are five different signs that you are or have experienced dissociation. 

  • Memory Loss

Memory loss is a common symptom of dissociation. You may find yourself at work or school but unable to remember how you got there. Memory loss is one of the quickest symptoms to identify because it is obvious. The main reason memory loss goes hand-in-hand with dissociation is because your brain cannot handle whatever is going on, so it switches to autopilot. 

Dissociation pulls you outside of your body. Hence, it is difficult for you to remember what happens around you if you are not there.

But, these moments of dissociation don’t always occur when we are frightened or distressed. They could sometimes happen while you are doing something. One of the first times I realized I experienced dissociation was in college. It was finals week, and I had just finished breakfast. I had planned to walk to my dorm, but I somehow found myself close to the lecture halls headed towards the science buildings when my dorm was in the opposite direction. When I came too, I was disoriented and confused. 

Though on its own, the incident was bizarre. It made sense. I was going through finals and felt incredibly stressed and overworked. As a result, my mind whisked me out of my body for a moment to give me a break. 

  • Derealization

Derealization is another symptom of dissociation. It sometimes feels like a dream where things are a bit colorless, dull, or blurry. Derealization is distressing and can produce anxiety, but it is common for those with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. 

However, derealization differs from other psychotic disorder symptoms in the sense that there is a degree of awareness. You are aware of reality and the feeling that distances you from it.   

  • Feeling lightheaded

There are many reasons why you may feel lightheaded. But, in the context of mental health, dissociation can be a cause. When lightheadedness is paired with another one of the symptoms mentioned above, then the cause is most likely dissociation. 

But, why? One theory has to do with vestibular stimulation. In 2009, a group of researchers found that vestibular stimulation also experienced symptoms of dissociation–lightheadedness and dizziness.

 What does this have to do with dissociation?

The vestibular system is a sensory system responsible for spatial awareness and sense of balance. However, when you dissociate you are not aware of your surroundings. When you come too, the sudden realization of your surroundings serves almost as vestibular stimulation and makes you lightheaded. 

  • Not feeling pain

Another sign of dissociation is not feeling pain. There is research suggesting that dissociation not only minimizes painful memories but also the physical pain attached to them.  

However, the connection between dissociation and pain is not solely related to trauma. People who experience chronic pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis, can also experience dissociation. 

For some who experience dissociation as a result of a mental health condition, the feeling of not feeling pain or not feeling in your body can sometimes lead you to self-injure. Although it makes sense to do something to bring you back into your body, self-injury is not the best option. You could try putting your hands under cold water, hold on to an ice cube or snap a rubber band against your wrist. These options may not seem effective, but they are safer. 

  • Loss of self-identity

Another aspect of dissociation is depersonalization. It is similar to derealization in the sense that you feel like you are watching yourself. However, depersonalization makes feel distant from your mental process.

 You feel that you are not in your body–like an observer. Depersonalization can occur with other symptoms on this list. My memory loss anecdote is also an example of depersonalization because at the same time that I was walking I felt like I had stepped out of my body and was watching myself walk in the opposite direction. 

It can feel a bit scary feeling like you do not have any control over your body. According to a WebMD article, there is not much information regarding what caused an episode of depersonalization. However, some clinicians believe that extreme stress or trauma can produce depersonalization.

Dissociation can be frightening and, in some cases, intrusive. It is not like a physical illness where diagnosis and treatment are administered via exams. But, there is treatment, among them being psychotherapy, medication, family therapy, and clinical hypnosis. 

If you experience any of these symptoms, please reach out to a medical health professional for treatment.

Take care! 

Sources:

Casarella, J. (2020, September 27). Mental Health: Depersonalization Disorder. WebMD . https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/depersonalization-disorder-mental-health. 

Duckworth, M.P., Iezzi, T., Archibald, Y. et al. Dissociation and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Patients With Chronic Pain. International Journal of Rehabilitation and Health 5, 129–139 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1012958206465

Ehlers, A., & Steil, R. (1995). Maintenance of intrusive memories in posttraumatic stress disorder: a cognitive approach. Behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy23(3), 217–249. https://doi.org/10.1017/S135246580001585X

Gluck, S., & Croft, H. (2016, July 1). Dissociation. Everything is Unreal. HealthyPlace. https://www.healthyplace.com/anxiety-panic/articles/dissociation-everything-is-unreal. 

MayoClinic Staff. (2017, November 17). Dissociative disorders. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dissociative-disorders/symptoms-causes/syc-20355215.

Morton, K. (2020, December 7). Is It Dissociation? YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSG09Zg32Ao.  

Sang, F. Y., Jáuregui-Renaud, K., Green, D. A., Bronstein, A. M., & Gresty, M. A. (2006). Depersonalisation/derealisation symptoms in vestibular disease. Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry77(6), 760–766. https://doi.org/10.1136/jnnp.2005.075473

Spiegel, D. (2021, March). Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder – Psychiatric Disorders. Merck Manuals Professional Edition. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/psychiatric-disorders/dissociative-disorders/depersonalization-derealization-disorder. 

Vogel, M., Krippl, M., Frenzel, L., Riediger, C., Frommer, J., Lohmann, C., & Illiger, S. (2019). Dissociation and Pain-Catastrophizing: Absorptive Detachment as a Higher-Order Factor in Control of Pain-Related Fearful Anticipations Prior to Total Knee Arthroplasty (TKA). Journal of clinical medicine8(5), 697. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm8050697

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