Dissociation, or a disconnect from reality, may shield you from distress and traumatic experiences. But this defense mechanism can affect your emotional health over time. Here’s how to manage it.
Dissociation happens when your mind “cuts off” a part of itself — a thought, a feeling, a memory — to protect the greater whole.
This dissociative response serves as a kind of defense mechanism, or unconscious strategy your mind uses to protect you from distress. For example, when your boss starts yelling at you for a mistake, your emotions may shut down, so to speak, in response, because your mind thinks numbness is easier to handle than panic or rage.
Like any defense mechanism, dissociation may help in the moment, but it can have harmful consequences if it becomes your only method of protecting yourself from distress. If you have a fractured experience of the world, you may have a difficult time living as your full, complete self.
What’s more, dissociation can eventually have a lasting impact on your mental health and quality of life.
Read on to learn more about how the dissociative defense mechanism works and what you can do to deal with ongoing dissociation.
Dissociation may happen as a symptom of many different mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
That said, roughly 3.5% of the general population has a dissociative disorder, or mental health condition that involves dissociation as a primary feature. These conditions include:
- Dissociative amnesia: If you have dissociative amnesia, you can’t remember autobiographical details or events from your life. Often the amnesia is limited to a certain time period, but in rare cases, you can lose memories of your entire identity.
- Depersonalization/derealization disorder (DDD): Depersonalization means you feel as if you aren’t fully present in the world, perhaps as if you’re a third party watching yourself act. Derealization, on the other hand, means you feel as if the world around you is fake, or that you’re dreaming.
- Dissociative identity disorder (DID): If you have dissociative identity disorder (DID), then you have a fragmented sense of self. You may feel like a different person in different contexts, or as if you have more than one identity in one body.
Dissociation exists on a spectrum. On one end, it may happen only occasionally and have very little impact on your life. On the other end, it may happen so often you find it difficult to stay engaged and “connected” to the present.
A good way to understand the dissociative response? Exploring the various ways it can play out in everyday life.
Dissociation and driving
Everyone dissociates on occasion. For example, say you’re driving a long, boring route to your grandma’s house. Partway through the drive, you find yourself daydreaming about winning the lottery. Your surface thoughts focus on buying your dream home, while a deeper part of your brain watches the traffic on the road to make sure you don’t crash.
This kind of dissociation is common and not a cause for concern. Your brain probably isn’t masking any trauma or distress here — it’s just giving you some stimulation so you can stay awake.
The occasional daydream doesn’t pose any harm, but you can overdo it.
Maladaptive daydreaming, for instance, describes when you retreat into a fantasy world to cope with the challenges of life. For example, you may deal with loneliness by creating elaborate romantic plotlines with you and your favorite celebrity.
These daydreams can have something of an “addictive” quality, where you find yourself spending hours in this parallel life and feel unable to stop. Daydreaming can become a cause for concern when it consumes so much time that it interferes with your school, work, or family and social life.
Derealization in a crisis
It’s common to feel a sense of unreality during acute trauma. For instance, say you find yourself in a mass shooting. As you escape the building, you might:
- feel emotionally detached, like you’re playing a video game instead of running for your life
- go into a trance-like state where you act automatically without thinking
- grow disoriented and confused as you have to interact with your environment in a new way
- experience time going much slower as you hyperfocus on the details around you
Between 15% and 30% of people with PTSD have the dissociative subtype of this condition. While most people with PTSD go into fight-or-flight mode when they encounter a trigger, those with dissociative PTSD react by mentally distancing themselves.
Say you’re watching a movie about domestic violence and see a disturbing scene. Dissociative PTSD may manifest as:
When you can’t physically flee a threat, you may try to escape mentally. Your thoughts may grow hazy and distracted, or you might drop in and out of consciousness. This reaction often happens as an unconscious process rather than a deliberate choice to flee.
If your mind goes to another place, then you have
Sometimes a trauma is too big to deal with all at once, so your mind processes the trauma in smaller, more manageable chunks.
For example, you might not remember much from surviving a natural disaster, except the anger and powerlessness you felt. If you find yourself lashing out without fully knowing why, this could mean your mind is expressing your anger automatically because it knows you don’t feel able to willingly reveal your frustration.
Letting out all that anger can take time. But once you’ve worked through your frustrations, your brain then has the space to put your memories together and release other feelings about the disaster, like grief and anxiety.
Looking back, you might emotionally distance yourself from that abused child. Even if you have memories of the maltreatment, those recollections may feel as if they belong to another you, not your current self.
This mental separation can serve as a protective factor: It assigns your trauma symptoms a whole other identity, in a manner of speaking, so you can build a healthier self-image separate from that abuse.
Where does dissociation fit into defense mechanism research?
Anna Freud and her father, Sigmund Freud,
Defense mechanisms have rankings from levels 1 to 7, with higher levels being more adaptive:
- Levels 1 to 4 include immature defense mechanisms, like denial and projection, that appear when you can’t deal with a situation mentally or emotionally. You often have very limited awareness of the conflict.
- Levels 5 and 6 include neurotic defense mechanisms, like dissociation and intellectualization, that appear when you can only cope with the mental or emotional aspects of a situation one at a time. You may have strong feelings about the conflict without recalling why, or you might only feel able to handle the conflict on an intellectual level without acknowledging your emotions.
- Level 7 includes mature defense mechanisms, like altruism and humor, that appear when you have full awareness of the conflict and can process it both mentally and emotionally. These defenses are often considered the healthiest defense mechanisms.
Dissociation itself is a level 5 defense mechanism, but dissociative behaviors like fantasizing or self-observation appear all along the scale. In other words, dissociation can have an adaptive or maladaptive effect, depending on how it manifests.
Because defense mechanisms largely happen unconsciously, you can’t always prevent dissociation. But if you do notice yourself dissociating, you can use grounding exercises to reel yourself back in.
Grounding techniques can help you reconnect yourself with your body, your emotions, and the world around you. They can prove helpful for coping with trauma, although you might also find them useful to manage depression, panic attacks, or cognitive impairment.
A few exercises to try:
- Recite the alphabet backwards: The alphabet is familiar enough to recall during stress, but you probably haven’t memorized it backwards, so going in reverse takes mental effort.
- Run your hands under cold water, or grab an ice cube from the fridge: A sudden shift in temperature can shock your mind back into bodily awareness.
- Encourage yourself: Dissociation happens when you feel you can’t cope with a situation. In some situations, like a breakup from your partner or receiving a lecture from your boss, it may help to remind yourself of your strengths, the fact that you’re safe, and that you can make it through the discomfort, no matter how upset you feel.
- Describe your surroundings: Look around you and describe the environment in as much sensory detail as possible. For example: “I’m in a parked car, the air conditioning is blowing on my face, the air freshener smells like lemon…”
- Stretch: Pay attention to how each muscle feels when you move. Use big, deliberate movements to remind yourself that you control your own body.
- Repeat a mantra aloud: Recall a line that inspired you, whether it’s a comforting prayer, an skin-tingling song lyric, or an inspiring movie line. Say it to yourself repeatedly, and let the words soak into you.
The more you practice these exercises, the easier they’ll come to you when you need them. Try to use grounding exercises when you first notice yourself dissociating. The earlier in the episode you catch yourself splitting, the easier it may feel to draw yourself back together.
You may want to consider getting more support from a mental health professional if you:
- feel out of control, as if you can’t predict or manage your own emotions
- have multiple gaps in your memory
- spend more time inside your head than you do participating in life
- have overlapping “voices” or “selves” speaking in your head
- feel separate from the world, as if you’re only half-alive
Just as dissociation involves a split self, therapy for dissociation also involves phases. Experts call this phasic trauma treatment.
Phase 1: Stabilization
Dissociation is your mind’s attempt to defend itself from threats. Thus, therapy’s first order of business lies in making you feel safe.
A therapist may help you get into a safer living situation, for instance, or teach you relaxation techniques. In some cases, your care team may recommend medication for panic attacks or severe depression, particularly if you have thoughts of suicide.
Need to talk now?
If you’re thinking about suicide, you can get help right now.
You can access compassionate, confidential support from trained crisis counselors by calling 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Helpline.
If you prefer to connect over text, text “HOME” to 741-741 to reach a crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line.
You can connect with these free helplines 24/7, 365 days a year.
Phase 2: Addressing trauma
The next step involves treating trauma that caused the dissociation in the first place. Helpful therapy approaches may include:
- dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- trauma-informed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- narrative therapy
- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
Contrary to popular belief, however, therapists generally don’t use hypnosis to recover memories hidden by amnesia or DID. Hypnotherapy techniques can, however, help you regain a sense of calm when memories overwhelm you.
Phase 3: Re-integration
The last phase focuses on teaching you coping strategies and problem-solving skills so you don’t have to rely on dissociation in every conflict. The goal here is improving your day-to-day functioning as much as possible.
How you accomplish this depends on your needs. For example, research from 2018 suggests not everyone with dissociative amnesia wants or benefits from remembering their traumatic past. If that’s the case for you, you may prefer help rebuilding your sense of self and moving forward into the future.
Dissociation refers to a defense mechanism that can help protect your mind from extreme stress.
It often develops in response to trauma, so trauma therapies commonly make up a part of treatment for dissociation. Grounding exercises offer another helpful tool to cope with dissociation and manage distress in the moment.
If dissociation begins to disrupt your life, you don’t have to deal with it alone. A professional therapist can offer more support with identifying causes of dissociation and helping you learn and practice skills to navigate those triggers without “checking out.”
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.