Updated: Jul 10
The same way that newspapers, media, and the entertainment industries exploit “bad news” or expose the worst of people and society, so too does the medical model of psychology focus on the negative and pathological characteristics of human experiences. When it comes to dissociation, this kind of pathologizing may seem harmless, but the number of individuals diagnosed with a dissociative disorder is increasing exponentially. Believing that you have DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) can be very damaging to a person that is looking for help and is already stressed trying to find a sense of self. Pathologizing dissociation could end up causing fear and promoting further fragmentation. On the other hand, normalizing some dissociative experiences could help people stay integrated and present.
You might not know this, but we all experience dissociation on a daily basis. Dissociation is adaptive, a characteristic of life, hardwired — and it has a protective function. Dissociation is a natural process of the brain that we use all the time; for example, when we’re trying to stay focused; staying focused is very energy consuming and our brain needs to rest, especially in the times we are living in where we are always overstimulated by all sorts of sensory, intellectual, and emotional experiences. Our brain is working 24/7 and staying so focused (from working to worrying) is extremely demanding; the brain needs some breaks, and dissociation is a very natural way to give those breaks to the brain, to save energy and to keep its effectiveness.
Furthermore, dissociation moves in a continuum, is present to some degree in everyone, and is experienced at any time in the general population. It has been found that 80–90% of individuals report dissociative symptoms at least some of the time (Bruce, 2007). It has also been identified that dissociation could be divided into at least two distinct categories: “detachment” and “compartmentalization;” they have different definitions, mechanisms, and treatment implications (Brown, 2008).
Dissociation has gotten more attention recently due to the discovery of the important role it plays among the symptoms of traumatization. And yes, it does and it is a very significant characteristic of the trauma spectrum; it’s actually a significant element of developmental trauma (Developmental Trauma Disorder or DTD) that has severe consequences in the lives of the adults that suffer traumatization in childhood. In this sense, it plays an important role in terms of detachment (depersonalization/derealization) and in compartmentalization (fragmentation of the personality & amnesia).
Still, dissociation as we popularly use the term has many faces and moves in a spectrum, from very short-lived mental breaks to more permanent withdrawal; from disconnecting from the page of the book you are reading, to disconnecting from your emotions; from forgetting where you left the keys, to forgetting years of your life. In this article, I’ll go through some common manifestations of dissociation, and warn about which are most concerning — as well as which are actually helpful and protective in everyday life.
Memory and Dissociation
Dissociation is normally equated with repressed/forgotten memories; therefore, if we talk about dissociation, we need to talk about memory. Memory is another protective/adaptive strategy that we abuse and misunderstand. We, as a society, are completely obsessed with remembering everything. Instead of accepting the wisdom of our brain and body, we want to impose the values that our society have developed of what success and happiness are: memory could be perceived as a symbol of intelligence; memorizing is the goal of many contests (even without competition); remembering seems to be an achievement; and recovering dissociated memories consumes many psychotherapy sessions. We “judge” our brain as defective if it doesn’t perform as we wish or as is expected, when in reality, every time we “re-member,” our brain is making up a large percentage of the “memory.” If at some point we need a memory, our brain is so efficient that it will do everything for us to have it; it would even invent it if necessary!
Our brain is designed to store and memorize what it considers important for our survival and for adapting to the environment we live in. If our system doesn’t store, or if it “dissociates” an event, we should think of it as a protection, instead of jumping to the conclusion that there is something wrong with our brain power just because we’ve forgotten something. Dissociating memories is an adaptive mechanism that we could learn to respect, appreciate, and use to our advantage.
Disassociation is normally the result of the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). This system is in charge of the resting (and digesting) functions of the body. It is one of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) branches that basically undoes the work of the sympathetic branch. In normal circumstances, if we get distracted and disengaged, our PSNS will get activated and we will miss parts of what’s going on. That could be considered dissociation. In non-normal circumstances, like after a stressful situation, in order to undo some of the hyperactivation caused by the sympathetic, the PSNS produces endogenous opioids as a form of analgesia; this “passive” defense response causes changes in cerebral blood flow and contributes to perceptual disturbances (depersonalization and derealization), impairments on memory encoding and retrieval, and failure on engagement; all of them characteristics that are included under the clinical definition of dissociation.
Even though the ANS is supposed to act without consciousness, it’s becoming popular to “intervene” in some of our automatic functions to improve our wellbeing: heart rate variability (HRV) for example is something we can control with the quality of our thoughts.
The different manifestations of dissociation happen for a reason, and we may discover how to benefit from them by “intervening” when they occur:
The brain stores the parts of the memories that it considers vital, and “forgets” the rest.
In the case of extreme stress, fear, or traumatization, dissociating memories happen because the brain is either:
out of power and unable to encode the information of the event;
considers that they could jeopardize survival and stores them in a different place;
it’s working on keeping the person afloat and therefore considers it unnecessary to store the memory in an accessible way.
Costs and Benefits: Besides the evident benefit of not encoding or easily retrieving negative and hurtful information, not remembering everything has the advantage of seeing things as new many times, keeping the capacity to be surprised, and leaving mental space for learning new skills. Not remembering horrible experiences is a bonus granted by dissociation.
Dissociating emotional despair
It is theorized that dissociation is caused by the need to avoid emotional information, especially negative emotions, to protect a fragile psyche. This mechanism can occur after traumatization, or can be created as a defense through repetition. Avoiding emotions can become a mental habit and could become hard to eliminate; if it takes over as an automatic response every time we experience strong emotions, we not only lose the capacity to experience negative emotions but also positive ones. Therefore, this type of dissociation should be taken care of before it reduces the joy of living life.
Costs and Benefits: the benefits are obvious (not suffering) but the cost is enormous. Dissociating from experiencing emotions should not be fomented or accepted. If you suffer from it, you should look for help. Your life will be better the day you experience your emotions; it’ll be even better when you learn to listen to them and gain control over their manifestations.
Dissociating parts of the personality
“Parts” developed to do a particular task. You can read all about them in an article I wrote: Dissociated Parts and Alters. A younger part could exist to make sure you have fun, while another could stay loud to make sure you succeed professionally. If they don’t agree with each other, your brain will compartmentalize them and they will be considered dissociated.
Costs and Benefits: Integrating parts into the whole makes life more efficient (the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts) but having parts is also important to reach a balanced experience. If you are aware of your parts, you can decide which one will be in the driving seat at any moment since you will be the copilot. Or you can choose one to guide while you drive. If you have nice and clear communication with your parts, you may be a more integrated person, and life could be more fulfilling.
Dissociating from the physicality or concreteness of your body
Ego death is a goal of several Eastern religions; Westerners find it so scary that having dissociative experiences like depersonalization and derealization trigger fear and become the reason of perhaps more dissociation — and even trauma. Many individuals look for therapy after these types of experiences thinking that they are losing their minds, but these experiences are normally transient and not a reason to panic. I have had many clients that experience depersonalization after or during getting high (weed for instance) and become so preoccupied with losing their minds that they start developing PTSD symptoms. Their guilt and fear start the process of primitive defenses, even when they attribute the fear to the depersonalization/derealization experience and not to their response to it.
Derealization costs and benefits: Having a derealization experience triggered by, let’s say, fear, causes a separation from what seems to be “real;” the human brain (prefrontal cortex more specifically) then has the opportunity to observe what “real” really means. If fear is controlled, maybe in that window of a shift in perception, we could see that the fear that is causing the experience is just a message, and the intensity of what we are feeling is not based on reality; it’s based on chemicals and physiological responses. When we experience self-doubt, it causes emotional turbulence and fear gets activated; and then we go back to primitive functioning and possibly pathological dissociation.
Depersonalization costs and benefits: Meditators dissociate “severely” as a way to become “awakened,” and they don’t get traumatized because of it. Without fear, depersonalization is a way to know that we are more than just what our skin limits. Observing the transient phenomena could give us a different connection with ourselves. The ego causes lots of suffering; giving space to some dissolution of a fixed and immobile ego could liberate us of some pain.
If we think about dissociation as a hardwired protective strategy, we may be able to find its benefits. There is a helpful parallel in a familiar process that is more accepted as a positive in our time: It has been only recently that we shifted the perception about our emotions; we used to believe that they were bad for us and now we know that all of them have a protective function.
Generally speaking, we humans count with a set of protective means to survive, and when we gain control over them, they become instruments for a better life, of mental health, and of wellbeing. In the same fashion, if we learn how to use the dissociative ability of our brain and gain control over it, we could use it to become mentally healthier and consciously avoid some pains. If you think about it, people take drugs and alcohol to dissociate from pain and problems; dissociation offers a healthier solution than self-medicating.
Jeffrey Seinfeld, author and deep object relations thinker, scholar, and theorist told me once that
“the line between psychosis and mysticism is very thin; the difference between the two is whether you can keep control or lose it.”
In the same way, the line between healthy dissociation and pathological one is having control over it, or better yet, having the awareness that you could use to our advantage. Even in the case of dissociative memories, where we are not clearly in control of what to remember and what to forget, forgetting can be healthy, adaptive, and advantageous. It’s all about how we instruct our brain on what is important and what could be ignored.