What is dissociation?
Dissociation is a term used to describe something that we all experience many times a day. It is the act of “zoning out,” as when we daydream or get lost in thought while driving. In its simplest form, dissociation is the way we all take mental vacations.
Dissociation as a coping tool
Dissociation is also a natural way that human beings and animals cope with fear. When we become scared or shocked, as happens during an accident or assault, our minds often use dissociation to detach and escape from overwhelming feelings.
While dissociation is a natural coping mechanism, if used too frequently it can become habitual and lead to a dissociative disorder. The dissociative disorders include:
How common are Dissociative Disorders?
While normal dissociation happens to everyone many times a day, problematic dissociation is rarer. About 10% of the general population suffers from a dissociative disorder at any given time. The most common dissociative disorder is dissociative amnesia. The least common is Dissociative Identity Disorder.
What are remedies for Dissociative Disorders?
Since different dissociative disorders have different root causes and different symptoms, they are often treated differently. A dissociative fugue, for instance, is usually brought on by a current life stressor. So, the best treatment is probably psychotherapy to cope with stress, as well as medication to lessen anxiety.
Depersonalization Disorder and Dissociative Identity Disorder are both linked to long-standing habits of using dissociation to deal with stress. In order to conquer these disorders, sufferers will need to learn how to stay present during times of stress. They may also need long-term psychotherapy to process the early trauma that first caused them to dissociate, as well as medication to lessen anxiety and depression.
Dissociative amnesia can be linked to stress in the present or the past. Sometimes, it goes away on its own. Other times, it requires psychotherapy to help process the troubling memories that had previously been repressed.
With proper treatment, all of the dissociative disorders can be overcome, helping sufferers go on to lead satisfying and fulfilling lives.
Dr. Michelle Stevens is a psychologist, writer, and expert on trauma. She wrote the bestselling book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (Putnam, 2017).