March 07, 2022

Dissociation: Why You Do It and How to Stop

Young woman stares vacantly out the window in her office at work

When you daydream or “lose yourself” in a good book, you’re experiencing a degree of dissociation — meaning you’ve disconnected from the world around you temporarily. That’s normal. 

However, if you experience a mental health disorder called dissociation, that’s not normal and is an indicator that you should talk with a mental health professional. In this condition, you unintentionally become disconnected from your thoughts, memories, emotions, or the environment you’re in. The symptoms may resolve on their own, but it can take hours, days, or much longer in some instances. 

What Are the Symptoms of Dissociation?

How a dissociative episode feels varies from person to person. But you may:

  • Have an out of body experience (seeing the world as if from a point of view outside your physical body)
  • Feel emotionally numb
  • Have a distorted sense of time
  • Get deeply involved in a fantasy world and believe it’s real
  • Experience little or no physical pain
  • Feel like you’re a different person
  • Have tunnel vision
  • Have significant gaps in your memory
  • Feel unable to move
  • Hear voices in your head
  • Find yourself at a location and not know how you got there
  • Experience intense flashbacks as if they’re happening now

By some estimates, nearly 30% of people say they occasionally have the types of sensations described above, and 7% of the population has suffered from a dissociative disorder. This type of disorder is more common in young people and the incidence decreases steadily after age 20.

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3 Types of Dissociation

There are three primary types of dissociative disorders:

  • Depersonalization-derealization disorder. In this type of dissociation, the person feels like they’re observing their life from outside their body. 
  • Dissociative amnesia. The person forgets important information about themself or past events. 
  • Dissociative identity disorder. Previously referred to as “having multiple personalities,” this type of dissociation causes a person to have two or more persistent personality states. 

Dissociation can also occur with several physical and mental health conditions including epilepsy, migraine headaches, intense phobias, substance use disorders, depression, schizophrenia, acute stress disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and affective disorders. 

What Causes Dissociative Disorders

The cause of a person’s dissociative disorder isn’t always clear. However, these conditions may be linked to traumatic experiences such as assault or abuse, military combat, and natural disasters. Drug use disorders also seem to increase the risk of developing a dissociative disorder. 

How Are Dissociative Disorders Diagnosed and Treated?

Doctors diagnose dissociative disorders based on a physical exam, questions about the symptoms a person is experiencing, and testing to rule out possible causes of dissociation. For example, a doctor may prescribe blood tests or an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain waves. Your primary doctor may also refer you to a mental health expert such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor. 

There’s no specific cure for dissociative disorders, but they can be successfully treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Medications like antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and sleep aids are sometimes used in conjunction with therapies such as phasic trauma treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy, and others. 

Learn About Behavioral Health Services at Baptist Health

The good news about dissociative disorders is that with help, patients can reduce their symptoms and lead healthier lives. Baptist Health offers world-class behavioral health services. Find a provider near you to get the help you need via our online provider directory today.

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