Dissociation means to “dissociate from the world” by losing consciousness. It involves detachment from one’s feelings and entire reality. Dissociation is an involuntary, instinctual, survival response conditioned in early childhood as a way of responding to trauma. Those who frequently dissociate are likely to have a personality disorder due to a serotonin deficiency. During a dissociative episode, a person may do things their “normal self” would not, losing sense of control and awareness — sometimes, another personality can take over completely. Frequent dissociative episodes leads to personal instability, memory loss, a lack of trust in oneself, and an overall confusion of one’s reality.
Trauma can stem from emotional or physical abuse, emotional or physical neglect, a near death experience, social humiliation, witnessing verbal or physical violence, being put in danger by people you trust, etc.
Children who experience trauma are at a critical stage in their life of brain development, and so it changes the way they think. They may never fully process any trauma because they accept everything and see everything as “normal.” They are not capable of defending themselves, putting up boundaries, or knowing when they are supposed to seek help.
When a child experiences one or multiple traumas, or an ongoing trauma, their defense mechanism is to withdraw from reality and pretend their experience is not real. This may be the only way of coping with an unbearable situation. Into adulthood, the brain is permanently rewired into coping with stress through dissociation. Painful situations are removed from reality, blurring the line between what is real and what’s not.
It is not just experience alone, but genetics and brain chemistry which is responsible for dissociation. A child born with a predisposition to a personality disorder is more likely to suffer from trauma, and more severely. For example — a child with social anxiety who could have avoided multiple traumas if he/she was able to speak up for him/herself.
Dissociation is connected to serotonin deficiency. The role of serotonin (the “happy” hormone) is highly complex and still not fully understood. However, studies have connected it to personality disorders such as general anxiety, social anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative identity disorder.
Psychiatrists prescribe SSRI’s to patients with serotonin deficiency. However, these prescription medications come with unwanted side affects such as lethargy, and are not recommended to take for an extended period of time. Supplements such as 5-HTP and tryptophan can assist serotonin production, as well as many herbs such as ashwagandha or chamomile.
What does a dissociative episode look like?
On the outside, it can seem nearly impossible for others to know that you are disassociating — unless they are aware of your condition. A person who is disassociating typically comes across as “normal.”
- A mild episode happens when a person feels “out of it.” On the outside, people will assume they are just tired. Inside: they are conscious enough to know that they are disconnecting from reality, but still lacking control over themselves. They will suffer from brain fog and struggle to remember details (where’s my keys?) but no amnesia or blacking out. It feels like an extremely vivid dream.
- A moderate episode is more intense, in which a person is unable to distinguish the difference between self and environment. Their personality is lost, and so they take on the personality of whoever they are talking to. This makes them prone to being taken advantage of, as they lose sense of boundaries and are unable to stick up for themselves. Others may see them as “fake” or “two-faced” or “people pleasers,” when really they are clinging onto whatever sense of reality they have left.
- A severe episode involves almost total loss of consciousness. Not only have they lost sense of themselves, they have also lost sense of their surroundings and entire reality! At this point, a different personality comes in and takes over in order to “cover up” the fact that they are dissociated. The other personalities have different agendas because they are separate from the conscious mind. And so, they will do things with complete lack of awareness and no concern for the consequences.
The best way to explain a severe episode is to relate it to being drunk. You lose control of yourself and you lose awareness of your surroundings. You do and say things that do not feel true to your genuine nature.
Dangers of dissociating
Because of the loss of control and awareness, dissociative episodes are dangerous. Often, they will strain relationships and hurt loved ones. However — the person most at risk is their own self.
During extreme dissociation, a person will feel that they have to resort to extreme measures in order to “wake themselves up.” They may engage in self-inflicted violence or seek punishment and humiliation as a way of bringing themselves back to reality.
Pain is therapeutic for disassociation because it brings the person back to life, puts them back in control, and brings them back to their true personality as everything feels real again. However, there are much healthier ways of coming back to reality.
Frequent dissociative episodes causes a person to lose their sense of identity. They may frequently change appearance, such as the way they dress. They may feel like another age, another gender, or even an animal. A lack of trust in oneself leads to low self-esteem and self-sabotage. Others have trouble understanding them.
As mentioned previously, medicine can be taken to assist serotonin production and therefore ease the difficulties of dissociating (although there is no known cure.) These include prescription SSRI’s, supplements, and herbs.
Grounding is the healthiest and most effective way of fighting dissociation. Grounding involves connecting yourself to the present moment. Techniques include: focusing on your five senses, taking deep breaths, feeling your heartbeat, and so on.
Another great technique is journaling. It helps to look back at previous entries and see if you can recall events correctly or remember how you were feeling at the time.
Observing yourself from an outsider’s perspective without judgment sheds light on what you need to work on. You can do this through introspection or by talking to someone you trust about it.
Myth vs. Fact
- Dissociation is a real phenomenon. And it will cause serious issues if not handled properly.
- Dissociation is NOT an excuse for negative behavior. Although it goes beyond one’s control, a self-aware adult is responsible for keeping it as controlled as possible through self-care and medicine or supplements.
- Dissociation does NOT mean a lack of empathy. When a person dissociates they may be feeling numb and come across as cold or careless, however it has nothing to do with a lack of empathy. Many times dissociation happens due to sensory overload from having too much empathy.
Many people who suffer from frequent dissociative episodes are typically not even aware of their condition. Although extremely rare, it is still more common than thought. Roughly 0.1-1% of the population is diagnosed, while it is estimated that 7% of the population is undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with something else.
Whether you experience dissociation, or you know someone who does, or you don’t know anyone who has — either way, we should all put our mental health first as well as encourage others to take care of theirs.
Happy Self-care Sunday!!! 🙂