What Is Dissociation?

Dissociation (commonly misspelled disassociation) is a feeling of disconnection from your senses, thoughts, emotions, identity, behavior, or memories.1

Everyone experiences dissociation to some degree. Whether you’re a survivor of trauma or not, chances are you have, at some point, zoned out during a class lecture, daydreamed while waiting in line, or gone on autopilot while driving a familiar route home from work.


What Are Symptoms of Dissociation?

People experience dissociation in many different ways. Even among survivors of child sexual abuse, experiences with dissociation exist on a continuum that range from mild to severe.


Mild Forms of Dissociation

On the milder end of the continuum, a survivor of child sexual abuse may experience a sense of detachment or disconnection from the world around them. They may often zone out, have trouble focusing on the present, or struggle with fully engaging with their surroundings and situations.

Another way people experience dissociation is feeling disconnected from their own emotions, which can lead to feelings of blankness or nothingness. This blankness is similar to the emotional exhaustion associated with depression. And just as people can feel disconnected from their emotions, they can feel a similar disconnection with their bodies. Such numbness or detachment can make it difficult for survivors to be attuned to their body’s responses and signals, as well as what those signals are trying to communicate.

Some survivors have described these feelings of numbness, detachment, or disconnection as living behind a pane of glass. This pane of glass feels like a barrier between them and the rest of the world, one that separates them from truly engaging with the situations, relationships, and challenges in their life.



Severe Forms of Dissociation

Other survivors of child sexual abuse may struggle with more severe levels of dissociation. Such levels occur when an individual dissociates to a degree that significantly impacts their day-to-day functioning and well-being. For instance, they may dissociate more frequently, for longer periods of time, or at a higher intensity. This severity is what distinguishes between those feelings of blankness, numbness, and detachment, and actually “losing time,” or being unable to account for a large portion of your day.

This increased intensity can lead to what is known as depersonalization, or feeling detached from your body and thoughts. In these instances of dissociation, a survivor may feel as though they have left their own body and are looking at themselves from a third-person point of view. This type of dissociating aligns with what many survivors have described as out-of-body experiences that occurred during their abuse. Such experiences commonly involved the survivor feeling as though they floated out of their body and watched the abuse take place from another perspective, as if the trauma were happening to someone else.

Although temporarily dissociating from the body was critical as a child during abuse, dissociating years after the danger is gone and you are busy trying to live your adult life can lead to unwanted interruptions and difficulties. For instance, dissociating during a workplace presentation, at a parent-teacher conference, or while being sexually intimate with a partner will cause additional challenges, anxiety, and stress.

If you feel that dissociation is a symptom that is impacting your life, we strongly encourage you to seek the help of a medical professional. Not only will they be able to help you identify to what degree you are dissociating, but they can also determine if your dissociation is indicative of an underlying condition, such as depression, anxiety, acute stress, substance abuse, or PTSD.1,2


How Does Dissociation Relate to Child Sexual Abuse?

Dissociation is one of the common long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse. In fact, childhood trauma is thought to be the root cause in at least 90% of people who dissociate.1

This notable link is in part due to the increased helplessness a child experiences during a trauma, such as sexual abuse. With little to no options of coping or finding an escape, the child’s brain will resort to the self-protective strategy of dissociation. This means that if you dissociated while being sexually abused as a child, your response was natural, even necessary. Dissociation served a very important role—it kept you alive. It was your brain’s way of keeping you safe (and providing a temporary escape) by placing distance between yourself and a traumatic situation that would have otherwise been unbearable.1

And since your still-developing brain learned to dissociate during these childhood moments of trauma, it has continued to do so even as you’ve gotten older and the danger no longer exists. Your brain is not fully aware of this shift and may still default to dissociation during times of stress as a way to continue protecting you.

But this default response can prove unhelpful, as dissociation can interfere with your daily life as an adult. It can interfere with your relationships, with your work life, with sexual intimacy, with parenting and school, and with your awareness of your own thoughts, emotions, and body signals. It can even interfere with your perception of reality. This continued interference not only hinders your daily functioning but can get in the way of recovering from the trauma that ignited your dissociation in the first place.


How Do I Know If I Am Experiencing Dissociation?

Below are several questions taken from an assessment by the National Center for PTSD that might help you determine if you are experiencing a concerning level of dissociation.3 We want to emphasize that this assessment is not diagnostic. However, your answers to these questions may give you a better idea of what dissociation is and whether it is a symptom you might be experiencing and want to discuss with a medical professional.

Dissociation Assessment

  1. Have you ever felt disconnected from your body?

If so, how often?

    1. Once or twice a month.
    2. Once or twice a week.
    3. Three or four times a week.
    4. Daily.
  1. Have you ever felt “checked out,” like you don’t really know what’s happening around you?

If so, how often?

    1. Once or twice a month.
    2. Once or twice a week.
    3. Three or four times a week.
    4. Daily.
  1. Have you ever felt like you were outside of your own body, as if looking at yourself from the third person?

If so, how often?

    1. Once or twice a month.
    2. Once or twice a week.
    3. Three or four times a week.
    4. Daily.
  1. Have you “lost time,” or been unable to recall where you were or what you were doing for large portions of the day?

If so, how often?

    1. Once or twice a month.
    2. Once or twice a week.
    3. Three or four times a week.
    4. Daily.
  1. Have you ever struggled to recognize yourself when looking at your reflection?

If so, how often?

    1. Once or twice a month.
    2. Once or twice a week.
    3. Three or four times a week.
    4. Daily.
  1. Have you ever felt lost, confused, or disoriented while in a location that you would otherwise know well?

If so, how often?

    1. Once or twice a month.
    2. Once or twice a week.
    3. Three or four times a week.
    4. Daily.
  1. Have you ever felt like your own body was not real?

If so, how often?

    1. Once or twice a month.
    2. Once or twice a week.
    3. Three or four times a week.
    4. Daily.
  1. Have you felt like the world around you was unreal, hazy, or distorted—more like a movie you are watching rather than a reality you are a part of?

If so, how often?

    1. Once or twice a month.
    2. Once or twice a week.
    3. Three or four times a week.
    4. Daily.
  1. Outside of feeling sleepy or taking medication that causes drowsiness, have there been times when you felt like you were in a daze or a fog?

If so, how often?

    1. Once or twice a month.
    2. Once or twice a week.
    3. Three or four times a week.
    4. Daily.
  1. Have you ever ended up in a location with no memory of how you got there?

If so, how often?

    1. Once or twice a month.
    2. Once or twice a week.
    3. Three or four times a week.
    4. Daily.

Resources to Help Combat Dissociation

Below are three recommendations from our resource library. Each of these recommendations are tools that might be effective in helping you manage the dissociation you are currently experiencing.

Grounding Techniques

Dissociation is a survival technique that your brain learned in childhood, one that might no longer be helpful in most day-to-day situations. Grounding techniques provide your brain with other ways to cope with stress and remain connected to the present moment.

learn more

Mindfulness

While dissociation can cause you to feel disoriented, detached, or disconnected from the world around you, Mindfulness is about focusing your attention on the present moment with kindness and curiosity. The more you practice mindfully observing the details around you and the sensations you are experiencing, the more difficult it will be for your brain to dissociate from the present.

learn more

Movement

Dissociation often involves feeling disconnected from your body. Activities involving movement can help strengthen the connection between your mind and body, as well as enhance your interaction with the world around you.

learn more
References:
1. Tull, Matthew. (2020, June 03). Links Between Trauma, PTSD, and Dissociative Disorders. Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/how-trauma-can-lead-to-dissociative-disorders-2797534
2. Lindberg, Sara. (2020, April 04). What Is Emotional Numbing? Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/emotional-numbing-symptoms-2797372
3. Wolf, E., Mitchell, K. S., Sadeh, N., Hein, C., Fuhrman, I., Pietrzak, R. H., & Miller, M. W. (2017). The Dissociative Subtype of PTSD Scale: Initial evaluation in a national sample of trauma-exposed Veterans. Assessment, 24, 503-516. doi:10.1177/1073191115615212.