Dissociation is one of our protective responses to situations which overwhelm our capacity to cope in the moment. Our nervous system becomes hypo-activated, resulting in a reduced sense of ourselves and/or the world around us. Dissociation occurs on a continuum, ranging from a slight numbness or spaciness at one end to episodes in which one is awake and acting in the world for a significant period of time which they will not remember when the episode is over. This is can be a very effective strategy for helping us to get through an unbearable situation and it can become a problem for us if we get stuck in a pattern of dissociating after the unbearable situation is over.
Trauma is the primary cause of dissociation. Traumas can be single events or chronic distressing circumstances. When the trauma is successfully worked through, the need for dissociating, or splitting off from the experience, disappears. Before it is worked through, situations which are in some way reminiscent of the trauma, even if quite different and totally benign in the present, may trigger dissociation. For example, a woman who witnessed domestic violence between her parents over and over again growing up might find herself going numb at the earliest sign of conflict between romantic partners as an adult. Frustration between romantic partners is the familiar cue, even though most partners can have conflict in a peaceful and productive way.
Dissociation can take many forms. One may feel disconnected from one’s body, from the world around them, or both. People often report that there is a movie like quality to life, or that it’s as if there is an invisible wall of glass between them and the world. Some people feel like they are outside of themselves, watching things happen to them. The defining feature is that we lose present moment contact, to one degree or another, with ourselves and/or the world.
While dissociation is a great protective resource through an unbearable experience, it can be quite costly when it keeps happening after the experience is over. When we dissociate, we lose contact with ourselves and the world overall, which means we are also disconnected from joyful and pleasurable experiences. Disorientation and a lack of feeling can be just as distressing, if in a different way, than too much of an unpleasant feeling. The reduction in awareness that we experience can also leave us more susceptible to being traumatized again, as we may not notice cues in ourselves and the environment that something is amiss. In reality, we may now have the capacity to deal with new risky situations, but we need to be aware of what is happening, in order to respond to them effectively.
Overcoming dissociation is a process of learning how to regain contact, regulate emotions, tolerate feeling again, and work through the trauma which led to the dissociation in the first place. There are many strategies for doing this, but what strategy is best will depend on the individual and the specifics of the trauma that they have experienced. The first step is simply to notice when you are dissociating. Because it can be quite difficult to work through the memory of the trauma which underlies the dissociation, it is important to seek out the help of a professional, such as a therapist, who is trained and experienced in treating these difficulties. It may take time, and not be easy, but you can regain contact and know that it is safe for you to be in the world again.