Occasional dissociation is normal. When your mind wanders off, you lose track of time, you can’t remember what you were doing, or you “zone out” of a situation, you are dissociating. Normally it only lasts a few minutes before your attention returns to the world around you, but if it continues for longer and becomes chronic, it can be a problem.
Long-term dissociation may have a various causes and it is important to rule out medical conditions such as epilepsy that can cause dissociation before considering psychological or pharmacological (drug-induced) causes, although some medical conditions are exacerbated by certain drugs or by psychological stress. If you think you are suffering from long-term dissociation, I recommend you contact your GP in the first instance.
Symptoms of dissociation include:
- Feeling like you are outside your own body.
- Altered sense of pain.
- Frequently forgetting things and/or experiencing memory gaps.
- Sometimes feeling that you are a different person.
- Racing heart and/or lightheadedness.
- Experiencing tunnel vision.
- Feeling physically and/or emotionally numb or detached.
- Having an altered sense of the passage of time.
- Not remembering how you got somewhere.
- Feeling that the world isn’t real or that you are not real.
- Having intense flashbacks that feel real.
- Living in a fantasy world that seems real.
- Hearing voices in your head.
- Experiencing difficulty in move all or part of your body.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms on a regular basis, I recommend you visit your GP to rule out a medical condition. If no such condition is found, it may be that you are experiencing dissociation and counselling may help. Common causes of dissociation include:
- Sexual, physical or mental abuse in childhood or adulthood.
- Military combat.
- Being involved in an accident.
- Losing something or someone very close to you.
- Natural disasters.
PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors) offers a wealth of information and help for those affected by dissociation at the PODS website:
Dissociation happens when the mind wants to avoid an uncomfortable experience. In the case of everyday experience, dissociation may briefly happen when we don’t want to listen to someone, for example because our mind is on other matters. But when a person has one or more extremely distressing experiences, the mind may use dissociation to avoid emotions and sensations which are too horrible to be felt. Long-term dissociation is therefore an effective means of self-protection – it keeps the dissociated person safe.
I do not personally believe that dissociation is pathological. There is nothing “wrong” with someone who is experiencing long-term dissociation; the body and mind are simply doing what is required to keep the person safe. Dissociation is part of a very effective self-protection mechanism that has existed since the emergence of the first vertebrates, some 375 million years ago.
If you feel you may be affected by dissociation, counselling may help you uncover the causes and achieve resolution. My approach recognises the self-protective role that dissociation plays and I honour the individual’s innate drive for self-preservation by working slowly and gently to help you feel safe before addressing your dissociative symptoms.