What is dissociation?

Dissociation is a self-protective mechanism in the brain that we all experience from time to time. It’s what happens when you feel overwhelmed and your brain shuts parts of itself down so you can cope with the situation. For example, when people have a car crash, they often report strange things happening, like time slowing down, floating above the scene of the accident, or not feeling any pain despite being injured. These are symptoms of dissociation, as the brain has shut down a bit to help them deal with the overwhelming and upsetting situation.

Think of dissociation like a circuit breaker being triggered. If there’s an electrical surge, a circuit breaker gets tripped to switch circuits off, so no electrical devices get damaged. That’s what happens in your brain when you dissociate.

If you experienced traumatic events as a child, your brain will have shut down to protect you. This was a healthy, ‘adaptive’ response to overwhelming feelings and sensations that your little self could not handle. But over time, dissociation becomes a habitual response, so your brain shuts down even when you experience much milder feelings, like a little anxiety.

Symptoms of dissociation

Unfortunately, dissociation causes various problems for us – we may feel spacey, empty, numb or weird in some other way (this is called ‘depersonalisation’). We might go blank, or struggle to hear what someone’s saying to us. Some people say everything looks far away, or it’s as if they are looking through a thick glass wall at the world (known as ‘derealisation’). When we dissociate we struggle to concentrate or remember important information. Not helpful if you are in a meeting, or about to take an exam.

You might experience dissociation when your anxiety is high – it’s a common symptom of panic attacks, for example. Or when you feel threatened in some way, your schemas getting triggered by a stressful event or situation that reminds you of something threatening from your past. I recently wrote a post about the ‘Detached Protector’ mode which we work with in schema therapy – this is a dissociative mode.

The good news is that dissociation can be treated – I have helped many people with dissociative problems using schema therapy. If you would like some help with your dissociation, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use the Contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan