Why Do People Dissociate During a Crisis?

Woman on sofa dissociation

Traumatic events can wreak havoc on our lives – being confronted with disturbing and unexpected experiences can knock our nervous systems off kilter, causing many unpleasant symptoms, including dissociation.

What is dissociation?

If you search for the term online or anywhere else, you might find that dissociation has various descriptions.

However, perhaps the simplest way to describe dissociation is that it is a temporary break from reality; a person who dissociates may feel disconnected from themselves and their surroundings.

Traumatic event

To better understand dissociation, it might be easier to look at it as an act of self-preservation, the brain’s way of trying to protect itself against potentially harmful or profoundly overwhelming experiences, such as a disturbing or traumatic event.

Dissociation has its uses, particularly in times of great stress or worry.

The present moment

Such a response alleviates some of the distress, panic, or anxiety you may experience due to a problematic or frightening experience, such as being the victim of an assault, natural disaster, or the sudden death of a loved one.

Dissociation can help reduce feelings of fear, shame, and anxiety; in the short term, this response can be helpful. However, it does not operate as a constructive long-term solution.

Trauma

woman thinking hard while sitting down

Dissociation can function in the short term as a helpful tool to help you get through a crisis.

However, mental health professionals state that dissociation is based on “avoidance coping,” meaning that although this reaction can be helpful in the present moment, the negative consequences are long-lasting.

Why do people experience dissociation?

Dissociation is a term that describes the experience of being disconnected from the present moment.

Researchers report that dissociation is a coping mechanism used by people to cope with or avoid a traumatic situation or negative thoughts (Arlin Cuncic, Verywell Mind, Dissociation as a Symptom of Anxiety, November 5th, 2021).

Anxiety disorders

Dissociation is often associated with a traumatic event such as being a soldier of war, the victim of an assault or natural disaster, or the loss of a loved one.

In this context, people dissociate to cope with the shock and trauma of what is happening around them; dissociation is often linked with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Mental illness

On the other hand, dissociation can also occur as part of an anxiety disorder.

Researchers explain that due to its nature, dissociation can disrupt and interfere with treatment for all mental health disorders and can disrupt or prevent healthy coping and trauma processing.

Feeling detached

People often describe dissociation as “the world not feeling real” or as if their lives are being played out in a movie.

Thoughts and feelings

Feeling numb and detached from their bodies are everyday experiences for people with dissociative disorders.

Addressing dissociation

Dissociation can be disruptive and may prevent recovery- therefore, dissociation must be addressed as part of a person’s treatment.

If you think you may have symptoms of dissociation – you must speak to your doctor or mental health specialist for advice and treatment.

Symptoms of dissociation

brain puzzle

When you dissociate, you may have gaps in your memory or forget things entirely.

You may think you are not real or feel like the world around you isn’t real.

You might also experience other thoughts and feelings, such as:

  • Feeling like you are a different person.
  • Feeling detached or emotionally numb.
  • Feeling light-headed or as if your heart is racing.
  • Experiencing minimal pain or no pain at all
  • Having an -out-of-body-experience

Additional symptoms

Other symptoms of dissociation may include:

  • Not remembering how you got somewhere (memory loss)
  • Hearing voices in your head
  • Having an altered sense of time
  • Experiencing intense flashbacks that feel real
  • Having tunnel vision
  • Becoming immobile

Causes

One of the leading causes of dissociation is trauma.

You may psychologically detach from the present moment if something terrible happens to you.

Psychologists believe dissociation is an unconscious technique used by the mind to protect you from the full impact of the upsetting experience you had (WebMD, Keri Wiginton, What Is Dissociation? June 28th, 2021).

Traumatic events

Dissociation can occur as a result of the following traumatic experiences:

  • Being in the military or a soldier of war
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • Being involved in a car accident
  • Natural disasters
  • Capture or torture
  • Childhood abuse
  • The sudden loss of a loved one

Anxiety and dissociation

Signs that someone may be an introvert

Although dissociation is usually an unconscious process, many people know it’s happening, particularly during episodes of anxiety.

When people dissociate – they experience a disconnect between their consciousness, memory, identity, and thoughts.

Ordinarily, our brains can process events – however, in periods of extreme stress or crisis, our memories, body functions, identities, and perceptions splinter, leaving us feeling disconnected.

Dissociation occurs in a few ways:

  • Derealisation
  • Depersonalization

Derealisation

Derealisation is an experience or sensation where the world does not feel real.

Your perceptions of the world may change where you see the world in shades of grey, or you may experience tunnel vision.

Other symptoms of derealisation include:

  • Having tunnel vision when you look at the world.
  • Feeling like the world around you isn’t real.
  • Seeing the world as dull, grey, and flat.

Depersonalization

Depersonalization involves feeling disconnected from your feelings, thoughts, actions, or body.

People often report feeling like they are watching themselves in a movie; they may also experience a loss of identity.

Symptoms of depersonalization include:

  • Feeling emotionally or physically numb.
  • Feeling as though you are unreal or absent.
  • Distorted or altered sense of time
  • Changes in your perception

Advice, diagnosis, and treatment

According to the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5), there are three types of dissociative disorders.

Please note there is a difference between anxiety-related dissociation and dissociative disorders.

Dissociative disorders include:

  • Dissociative amnesia – involves difficulty remembering things such as an event or having amnesia of an event because of dissociation.
  • Depersonalization disorder – involves feeling detached from the world around you.
  • Dissociative identity disorder – involves persistent gaps in memory and the presence of two or more distinct personalities (this condition used to be called multiple personality disorder).

Dissociation can also be a symptom of an anxiety disorder such as social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and other phobias.

The freeze response

Trauma specialist Sabino Mauro, PsyD, describes the body’s “freeze response” during a traumatic experience – Mauro believes that it is during the freeze response that a disconnect takes place.

“During a traumatic event, the fight or flight response is activated to protect the individual, ” says Mauro,” however, if for whatever reason, fight or flight is not a viable option, the freeze response is activated.”

During the freeze response, people sever contact between the brain and body to survive an ordeal.

However, because there aren’t any other options available – for instance, fight or flight becomes inactive due to the body becoming overwhelmed, the freeze response takes over.

According to Mauro, detachment and disconnection occur in the freeze response.

Dissociation can be a valuable strategy “when in the moment”; however, it can cause many problems for people long after the trauma subsides.

Sensations

Our nervous systems do not know the difference between “real” or “perceived” danger.

Thus, dissociation might occur when we confront situations or objects that remind the nervous system (consciously or unconsciously) of the trauma (PsychCentral, What’s the Link Between Trauma and Dissociation, Hope Gillette, August 2nd, 2021).

Recovering from trauma

Perspective on empathy

Living with trauma and its effects do not have to be a way of life- treatment options can allow you to live a happier, fulfilling life.

Knowing how to begin the healing process can be challenging; however, acceptance is usually a good place to start.

Mental health professionals say that accepting and acknowledging dissociation can help people come to terms with their trauma and allow them to recognize when they might be dissociating.

Some beneficial therapies can help treat dissociation and the root cause, such as:

Contact Centres for Health and Healing

The Centres for Health and Healing team is always on hand to lend a listening ear.

Contact a specialist today if you want more information about this article or are concerned about your mental health.

Helpful resources

  1. Dissociation as a Symptom of Anxiety – Verywell Mind, Arlin Cuncic, November 5th, 2021
  2. What’s the Link Between Trauma and Dissociation? – PsychCentral, Hope Gillette, August 2nd, 2021
  3. What is Dissociation? – WedMD, Keri Wiginton, June 28th, 2021
Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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