Dissociation, Dissociative Disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Trauma

What is dissociation, anyway? (part 1)

Dissociation – most simply stated – is a separation of body and spirit/mind. It is a state of disembodiment, in which your consciousness loses contact with your physical, sensory experience.

More dissociative conditions have been shown to be directly related to traumatic experiences, particularly in childhood. In The Haunted Self, Onno van der Hart and colleagues clarify that “events are not traumatic in themselves, rather, they may be so in their effect on a given individual. Thus not every individual who experiences a stressful event will actually be traumatized.”

Dissociation during a traumatic event is a natural, physiological response to circumstances that are too shocking, painful or extreme to process in the moment – it’s a survival strategy akin to parachuting out of a plane when both engines have gone down. Psychologists refer to this type of dissociation as adaptive – it helps you cope. Down the road, dissociation in everyday life in response to ordinary events is called maladaptive – there’s no need to parachute out of the 4th story window when your boss reprimands you for a mistake or a classmate teases you for a comment you made in class.

If you were restrained in some way during that early traumatic experience – say, strapped down for a medical procedure or held down by a perpetrator – you are more likely to experience dissociation down the road. We can experience traumatic aftermath from events for which we have no conscious memory – events from infancy or even birth – because our bodies remember. The memories held in our cells and our tissues hold energetic and physical patterns that affect our everyday functioning.

Dissociative episodes can last from a few minutes to weeks or even months. They range in severity from mild, such as arriving at a destination without remembering part of the trip, to pathological – forgetting who you are (Dissociative Amnesia) or splintering yourself into several personalities (Dissociative Identity Disorder or Multiple Personality Disorder). The DSM-IV (Fourth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, used by the American Psychological Association) recognizes four dissociative disorders (Dissociative Identity Disorder, Dissociative Fugue, Dissociative Amnesia, Depersonalization) and a fifth category of Dissociative Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (DDNOS). I’ll write more about these diagnoses in a future post.

So… what does it feel like to be dissociated?

State of Dissociation

In my experience, dissociation sometimes feels like my head is a balloon and my body just a string dangling off. I know that somewhere within me there must be physical sensations and feelings swimming around, but I can’t access them. The only sensations I can contact are heart palpitations and overwhelming anxiety and dread. Sometimes I’m aware of fear when I’m in this state, but it’s not connected to anything in particular.

At other times my heart feels closed off to the world as well as my consciousness. As much as I try to connect with my sweetheart or my close friends, it feels as though there were a thick plate of glass cutting me off. In this state I can’t quite connect with a desire to be alive. I can recall times of beautiful, heart-felt connection with others but when I’m dissociated I almost can’t imagine that I’ll ever feel that way again.

I’m grateful that I don’t experience dissociation very often anymore. When I do dissociate, I’m much more capable of recognizing it and I know how to access the resources to deal with it.

Here are a few links that can provide more insight on others’ experiences of dissociation:

From the blog post Finding One’s Self – Recovery From Dissociation:

“What does dissociation feel like?

Like being hollow.

So there’s a shell there, on the outside, and people look at the shell, and they talk to it and they act like it’s really you, but you know it isn’t. It’s just a mask. A cover. A defence mechanism carefully tweaked over years and decades, with razor-sharp antennae out, reading the signals, ready to react, ready to duck for cover, ready to be whatever it is that they want me to be today.”

From the blog post “Dissociation Sucks. Depression Sucks. “Parts” Suck. Therapy Sucks. And Foster Care REALLY Sucks.”:

“…Ask me what I did yesterday?  I honestly could not tell you.  Ask me what I ate for breakfast.   I don’t remember.  Ask me how I got home from work on Friday?  I have no clue…I lost my bike.  I misplace things, I forget when I am supposed to be places, and I wind up places I don’t know how I got there or why I am there.

I just  always thought I was stupid or had a really bad memory.

This sounds crazy, right?  It is.  Imagine having to believe this.  Try having to believe that your brain split into “parts” to protect you and kept allowing you to function.  Try believing that others have met these “parts” but you have not.  Try believing that this creative survival tool is real.”

To be continued…

About Tracy A. Andrews, MSOM, LAc

Tracy Andrews, MSOM, LAc is licensed by the Oregon Medical Board and certified as a Diplomate of Acupuncture by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. She maintains her private practice in Portland, Oregon, working collaboratively with her patients to address their health and wellbeing through treatments tailored to each individual's unique needs. Additionally, Tracy sees patients at the Immune Enhancement Project, a nonprofit clinic providing complementary care to patients with chronic pain, cancer, and multiple sclerosis, and is a volunteer provider with the Returning Veterans Project. More information about her practice at tracyandrewsacupuncture.com.


4 thoughts on “What is dissociation, anyway? (part 1)

  1. Thank you Tracy! I appreciate you taking the time to educate the web world about dissociation. I look forward to more posts. 🙂

    Posted by Colleen Erin Cole | 27 April 2011, 1:41 am
  2. Excellent work here!! Thanks for starting this blog.

    You’ve described dissociation so well and wisely. The balloon head is one that resonates with me, when I am in threatening situations. And you’re right, we need not parachute out of a 4th story window every time we suffer a minor setback. That image is somewhat humorous but also very apt, in explaining maladaptive states.

    I’ve really appreciated Martha Stout’s book ‘The Myth of Sanity: Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness’ in helping me to better conceptualize how dissociation works, from mild to severe states, and to recognize my own dissociation when it occurs, in order to reconnect with my body.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on dissociation, and various recommended treatment modalities, including Chinese medicine.

    Best wishes,

    Berkeley, CA

    Posted by Julie Thi Underhill | 27 April 2011, 2:02 am
  3. This article has been very helpful to me. I’ve known for over twenty years that I live in a dissociated state much of the time. You have put my experience into words with which I can share my dissociation with those closest to me. I found this link on a page of Tong Ren Practitioners on FB, where the article on the Vagus nerve and Mindfulness was shared. Was there ever a follow up article? I signed up to follow your blog.

    Posted by Susan Zecchini | 26 April 2016, 8:50 am

    Posted by shirleypblog | 4 December 2016, 11:58 pm

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