Do you ever feel that you are disconnected to your mind, body, environment, or self? Do you constantly feel that your existence is not real? There is a chance you might be experiencing dissociation.
I have experienced dissociation and I still do, as a result of being exposed to a traumatic event. It's hard to describe it to other people and expect them to understand. Many of my friends and family haven't even heard of it. But it's a real thing that happens.
Sometimes it feels like I'm in a constant, dreamlike daze. Or sometimes it feels as though I am a pair of eyes wandering around spaces. It's not an easy experience, but I find that the more I learn about it and the more aware of it I am, the less of a hold it has on me.
Dissociation is a symptom that anyone can experience. It is widely considered to be a psychological response to trauma. Dissociation is a way for the brain to calm the mind and body from stress, often triggered by a traumatic event.
In more severe cases, dissociation is a strong symptom in dissociative disorders.
Professionals in the medical community see that these disorders stem from trauma. Traumatic events include childhood abuse, sexual assault, natural disasters, combat in war, terrorist attacks, and more.
The Need for More Research?
In the fifth edition of the Diagonstic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM-5, there is an inclusion of a new catergory, dissociative disorders. These disorders all have one thing in common: dissociation. The DSM-5 (2013) acknowledges that there are two distinct components to dissociation:
“Depersonalization. Experience of being an outside observer of or detached from oneself (e.g., feeling as if ‘this is not happening to me’ or one were in a dream)”
“Derealization. Experience of unreality, distance, or distortion (e.g., ‘things are not real’)”
The fact that dissociative disorders just got their own category conveys the lack of existing studies and research surrounding dissociative disorders, and dissociation as a whole.
Even though the DSM-5 (2013) states the dissociative specification is depersonalization and derealization, some other members of the scientific, medical community list other symptoms as dissociative symptoms, such as the intrusive flashbacks. One explanation of dissociation comes from Kulkarni and colleagues (2012): “Dissociation is commonly defined as difficulty integrating thoughts, feelings and experiences into consciousness and memory.” This definition seems to broadly coincide with most definitions. In my research, dissociative symptoms often refer to “amnesia (keeping experiences that are psychologically overwhelming out of awareness), depersonalization (distortions in perceptions of oneself), and derealization (distortions in perceptions of the environment)” (Carlson et al. 1997).
According to Holmes and colleagues (2005):
Two qualitatively distinct forms of dissociation that differ in underlying neurobiological mechanisms [are] detachment and compartmentalization. Detachment includes experiences of disconnection from the self or environment, such as depersonalization, derealization, and out-of-body experiences. Compartmentalization includes dissociative amnesia and some unexplained neurological symptoms, such as conversion paralysis; these phenomena involve disintegration of information in the cognitive system.”
Holmes et. al (2005) acknowledge two distinct aspects of dissociation, one that evokes detachment of self from environment and one that acknowledges the disintegration of memory and information into the brain’s cognitive processes.
The variety of definitions suggests that there is a demand for more research into dissociation and how it interplays with individuals’ mental health.
How to Cope with Dissociation
For many people, dissociation is not easy to cope with. It can be difficult to feel as though your own existence is not real, or that you are not present in your body. Though there are ways that people can cope with it, and lessen the presence of dissociation.
A big way to do this is a method called grounding, engaging with the senses in order to calm the mind and body in a focused, non-destructive way. “Grounding techniques... are used to prevent, dull, or distract from dissociation, flashbacks, switching, panic attacks, self harm, addiction cravings, or other negative emotions, internal experiences, or impulses,” says Dissociative Identity Disorder Research. These practices can be done anytime, anywhere. A form of mindfulness, grounding calls for connecting yourself to your body. It is a form of meditation, for you are focusing your attention on simple tasks that can help both clear the mind and drive intention from the mind to the body.
Here are some examples of grounding:
For more grounding techniques, visit this link!
Other ways to cope with dissociation include a vast variety of therapies from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Psychodynamic Therapy, to art therapy. Therapy helps process and heal from traumatic events with the help of a trained and licensed professional. Exercise (yoga’s great) is an awesome way to engage with your body in a physical presence. Exercise is also proven to lift mood, boost self-esteem, and decrease stress, which might help curb those feelings of being stuck in a daze or disconnect.
If you are experiencing dissociation and would like more information or resources, here are some places that might be useful to you:
Carlson, E. B., Furby, L., Armstrong, J., and Shlaes., J. (1997, August). A Conceptual Framework for the Long-Term Psychological Effects of Traumatic Childhood Abuse. Child Maltreatment, p. 277–279.
Holmes, E.A., Brown, R.J., Mansell, W., Fearon R.P., Hunter, E.C., Frasquilho F., and Oakley D.A. (2005, January). “Are There Two Qualitatively Distinct Forms of Dissociation? A Review and Some Clinical Implications.” Clinical Psychology Review., U.S. National Library of Medicine. Abstract retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15596078.
International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. Dissociation FAQ’s. Retrieved from http://www.isst-d.org/default.asp?contentID=76
Kawa, S. and Giordano, J. (2012). A brief historicity of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Issues and implications for the future of psychiatric canon and practice. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine. Retrieved from http://www.peh-med.com/content/7/1/2.
Kulkarni, M., Porter, K.E., and Rauch, S. A. M. (2012). “Anger, Dissociation, and PTSD among Male Veterans Entering into PTSD Treatment.”Journal of Anxiety Disorder, vol. 26, p. 271–278. Elsevier.
“PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” (2018, February 22). PTSD and DSM-5 - "PTSD: National Center for PTSD."
Van der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E., Steele K.,and Brown, D. (2004). Trauma-Related Dissociation: Conceptual Clarity Lost and Found. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry., U.S. National Library of Medicine. Abstract retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15555024.
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