What is dissociation? Have you heard of it before? Dissociation is a coping mechanism that people use to deal with difficult or overwhelming situations. It can happen in response to a traumatic event and can be a chronic condition that develops over time.

Dissociation can range from mild to severe and can impact different areas of a person’s life. Learn more about what is dissociation, causes, its symptoms, and how to overcome it in this article.

What is dissociation?

Dissociation is a mental process that causes a person to disconnect from their thoughts, emotions, memories, or sense of self. 

It can be a response to trauma or stress, and it can make a person feel disconnected from the world around them. 

Dissociation can be a short-term experience, or it can last for long periods of time. People who dissociate often report feeling like they are watching themselves from outside their body or like they are in a dream.

Dissociation can lead to problems with memory, focus, and concentration. It can also make it difficult to connect with other people emotionally. In severe cases, it can result in self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Types of dissociation:

There are three primary types of dissociation derealization/depersonalization, dissociative identity disorder, and dissociative amnesia. 

Dissociative identity disorder

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a mental illness that is characterized by the presence of two or more distinct identities or personalities within an individual. 

These identities may be completely different from one another in terms of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. 

Individuals with DID often have difficulty recalling memories of their past, and they may experience gaps in their memory of certain periods.

DID is believed to be caused by extreme trauma during childhood, such as physical or sexual abuse. This trauma leads to a dissociation of the individual’s identity, which results in the formation of multiple personalities. 


Depersonalization is a condition in which a person feels detached from their own body and mind. They may feel like they are watching themselves from outside of their body or like they are in a dream. 

People with depersonalization disorder may also have trouble recognizing themselves in mirrors. 

This can be a very frightening experience, and it can make it hard to function in day-to-day life. 

Depersonalization is often triggered by trauma or stress, but it can also be caused by certain medical conditions or medications. Treatment for depersonalization disorder usually includes talk therapy and medication.

Dissociative amnesia

Dissociative amnesia is a rare but serious mental health condition that can cause a person to lose track of their identity and personal history. 

People with dissociative amnesia may have difficulty recalling important information about their lives, and they may even forget who they are. 

Dissociative amnesia is usually caused by severe psychological trauma, such as abuse or combat. 

The condition can also be triggered by a physical injury or illness. Treatment for dissociative amnesia typically involves therapy and medication.

Dissociative disorder word cloud

Possible causes of dissociation:

1. Trauma

There are many possible causes of dissociation, but one of the most common is trauma. 

Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of experiences, including physical or sexual abuse, witnessing violence, or experiencing a natural disaster. 

When someone experiences trauma, it can disrupt their sense of safety and security, leading to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and fear.

This can cause them to dissociate from their surroundings and themselves in order to cope with the overwhelming emotions. 

Over time, this can become a habitual way of dealing with stress and can lead to chronic dissociation. 

If you think you may be dissociating as a result of trauma, it’s important to seek professional help so that you can begin to heal and address the underlying issues.

How does trauma cause dissociation?

Trauma can cause dissociation in several ways. 

First, it can disrupt the normal development of the brain and nervous system. This can lead to problems with memory, attention, and emotion regulation. 

Second, trauma can cause changes in neurotransmitter levels, which can lead to dissociation. 

Finally, trauma can cause changes in the structure and function of the brain, which can also lead to dissociation.

2. Hypnosis

When a person is hypnotized, they are more likely to dissociate or feel detached from their body and surroundings. 

This is because hypnosis alters a person’s state of consciousness, making them more receptive to suggestions.

It’s believed that hypnosis can cause dissociation by increasing the activity of certain areas of the brain and decreasing activity in others. This change in brain activity can lead to changes in consciousness, perception, and memory.

During hypnosis, the scientists found, a region of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) became less active. 

dACC helps people stay vigilant about their external environment. It’s responsible for monitoring the environment for potential threats and keeping people alert to their surroundings. 

When the dACC is less active, people are more likely to be focused on internal thoughts and less aware of their surroundings. This can lead to a heightened state of relaxation and increased suggestibility, leading to dissociation.

3. Meditation

Meditation has been shown to cause dissociation in several ways. First, it can reduce the activity in the default mode network (DMN), a brain network implicated in self-related thinking and mind wandering. 

This can lead to a disconnection from the outside world and from other people.

In one study, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brains of 17 experienced meditators and 17 control participants. 

The participants were asked to lay still in the scanner while they completed a brief meditation exercise. 

The researchers found that, compared to the control group, the meditators showed significantly less activity in the default mode network during meditation.

4. Certain drugs

Alcohol: Alcohol is perhaps the most well-known dissociative drug. When consumed in large quantities, alcohol can cause slurred speech, impaired motor skills, and blackouts, which is when the drinker cannot remember what happened.

Amphetamines: Amphetamines are stimulant drugs that can also cause dissociation. When taken in high doses, they can lead to delusions and hallucinations. 

Barbiturates: Barbiturates are a type of sedative that can also cause dissociation. They work by depressing the central nervous system and can lead to slurred speech and drowsiness.

Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines are another type of sedative that can cause drowsiness and confusion, leading to dissociation.

Cocaine: Cocaine is a powerful stimulant drug that, when used heavily, can lead to paranoid delusions and hallucinations. 

MDMA: Methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) is a synthetic drug that is similar to both stimulants and hallucinogens. 

A single dose of MDMA has been shown to induce a dissociative state characterized by feelings of depersonalization and derealization. 

Ketamine: Ketamine is an anesthetic that can also cause dissociative effects. When used recreationally, it can lead to out-of-body experiences and hallucinations. 

5. Mental illnesses

Mental illnesses can cause people to experience changes in their thoughts, emotions, and behavior. 

These changes can be so severe that they interfere with a person’s ability to function in daily life. 

Mental illness can also cause physical changes in the brain that can lead to dissociation. 

Finally, mental illness can increase a person’s risk of developing difficulties with substance abuse, which can further contribute to dissociation.

6. Stress

When we experience stress, our body goes into fight-or-flight mode. This is a natural response that helps us to protect ourselves from danger. However, if we experience too much stress or if we are constantly in a state of high alert, this can lead to dissociation.

Shot of an attractive young woman sitting alone on her sofa and looking contemplative while using her laptop

How to recover from dissociation

There are many ways to recover from dissociation, but the most important thing is to seek professional help.

Therapists who specialize in dissociation can help you understand your condition and develop coping strategies. 

Medication may also be prescribed to help stabilize your mood and ease symptoms of anxiety or depression. 

In addition to professional help, there are things you can do on your own to recover from dissociation. This may include:

1. Connect with people who understand

When you’re feeling disconnected, talking to people who understand what you’re going through can be helpful. 

This might include friends or family members who have also experienced dissociation or a therapist specializing in this condition. Many online communities and support groups can also provide support and understanding.

2. Practice self-care

One of the most important things you can do when dealing with dissociation is to practice self-care. 

This means taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. Here are some ideas:

Get enough rest and sleep. Dissociation can be exhausting, so give your body the rest it needs.

Eat healthy foods and stay hydrated. Eating nutritious meals and drinking plenty of water will help your body heal and recover from dissociation.

Exercise or spend time in nature. Getting regular exercise or spending time outside in nature can help reduce stress and improve your mood.

Do something that makes you happy. Whether it’s listening to music, reading a book, watching a movie, or anything else that brings you joy, doing things that make you happy can help lift your spirits during tough times.

3. Avoid alcohol and drugs

Substance abuse is a common way to self-medicate dissociation, but it only exacerbates the problem. 

Alcohol and drugs numb the mind and prevent you from processing trauma, which can lead to further dissociation.

If you’re struggling with addiction, seek professional help to address both issues. In the meantime, here are some tips for avoiding alcohol and drugs:

Identify your triggers: When do you feel the urge to drink or use drugs? Is it when you’re feeling anxious or stressed? Keep track of your triggers so you can avoid them.

Create a support system: Talk to friends or family members who will support your sobriety. Let them know when you’re feeling tempted so they can talk you through it.

Avoid people and places associated with your drinking or drug use. If you used to drink at a certain bar, for example, don’t go there anymore.

Find new activities and hobbies to replace drinking or drug use. Doing things that make you happy and give you a sense of accomplishment will help you stay sober and drug-free.

4. Learn about dissociation

If you’re struggling with dissociation, it’s important to educate yourself about the condition. 

The more you know about dissociation, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with it. 

Read books, articles, and blog posts about dissociation and talk to your therapist about it. 

With knowledge and support, you can start to manage your dissociation and live a fuller, richer life.

5. Give yourself time

If you’re dissociating, it’s important to give yourself time to recover. This means taking some time for yourself without obligations or expectations. Relax and do whatever feels good for you at the moment. This could include taking a bath, reading a book, or going for a walk.

It’s also important to be gentle with yourself during this time. Avoid anything that might trigger or worsen dissociation, such as stressful situations or intense emotions. If you need to, reach out to a trusted friend or family member for support.

Most importantly, remember that recovery takes time. There is no magic cure-all for dissociation. But by giving yourself the time and space to heal, you can start to feel better and move on from this experience.

6. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention to the present. 

When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance without judging them as good or bad. 

Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and paying attention to the present non-judgmentally.

By observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment, you can begin to understand them more objectively. 

This can help you see your dissociative episodes as they really are rather than as something happening to you.

When you’re mindful, you can also start to see the patterns in your thinking and behavior that contribute to dissociation. Once you become aware of these patterns, you can begin to change them. 

In other words, mindfulness can help you become more aware of your triggers for dissociation and learn how to deal with them more constructively.

Final Thoughts

While dissociation may provide a temporary escape from difficult emotions, it can also have negative long-term effects. 

So, if you frequently dissociate, it’s important to seek professional help. Dissociation can be a symptom of underlying mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

Left untreated, these conditions can lead to serious problems, such as self-harm, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. If you’re struggling with dissociation or any other mental health issue, please reach out for help.

There is no shame in seeking treatment, and there are many people who can support you on your journey to recovery.

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