BPD What Is Dissociation in Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)? By Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University. Learn about our editorial process Updated on September 16, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Steven Gans, MD Medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Caiaimage / Paul Bradbury / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents What Is Dissociation? Symptoms Causes What the Research Says Treatment Dissociative Disorders What Is Dissociation? In broad terms, dissociation is a psychological phenomenon that represents a disconnect between your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, perceptions, memories, and identity. You probably are familiar with the sensation of feeling "zoned out"—the world around you momentarily seems unreal or looks strange or unfamiliar. In these moments, you could be experiencing dissociation. When it happens occasionally, dissociation is usually not a problem for most people. However, if it happens frequently or is intense, it could be a sign of a mental health condition, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD). Around 75% to 80% of people with BDP report experiencing stress-related dissociation. Signs and Symptoms of BPD Symptoms of Dissociation Dissociation during times of stress is one of the main symptoms of BPD. It's also associated with acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), both of which can co-occur with BPD. It's important to note that not everyone with BPD experiences dissociation. Even if you don't experience dissociation frequently or it's not very severe, almost everyone has experienced mild forms of dissociation from time to time. Examples of Mild Dissociation DaydreamingGetting caught up in a book or movie to the extent that you are unaware of what's going on around youZoning out (for example, you are driving on the highway and realize that you missed your exit, but you don't remember driving the last few miles) After years of study, researchers are now able to describe the experiences that go along with dissociation, including depersonalization, derealization, amnesia, identity confusion, and identity alteration. Depersonalization Depersonalization is the feeling of being separate from your body. People who experience depersonalization often say it feels like they are observing their own body from the outside, or as if they're in a dream. Derealization Similar to depersonalization, derealization is a feeling of being detached from the external world, which can include other people or objects. Familiar things can look strange, unreal, or unfamiliar. Derealization and depersonalization often occur at the same time. An Overview of Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder Amnesia Some people experience periods of amnesia or "losing time"—from minutes to hours or even days. Even though they awake during these times, they cannot remember where they were or what they were doing. This type of amnesia is sometimes referred to as a dissociative fugue. What Is Dissociative Fugue? Identity Confusion Identity confusion occurs when you experience an inner struggle about who you really are. People might have a hard time figuring out who they are in relation to others. Sometimes (and particularly for people with BPD), identity issues make it hard for a person to figure out where they end and another person (such as a spouse) begins. Identity Alteration Identity alteration is the sense that you are acting like a different person. For example, you see an object in your home that you don't recognize or perform a skill that you don't remember learning. Sometimes, you might become aware of identity alteration because other people in your life say that you are behaving like someone else. Mild identity alteration is common in the general population (for example, using a different name in different situations). The key difference is that you are aware of your identity or role change in these situations and it doesn't cause problems with your ability to function in your day-to-day life or relationships. Moderate identity alteration is common in BPD and involves changes in mood or behavior that are not under your control. Identity Issues in BPD Causes of Dissociation The exact cause of dissociation is unknown, but it often affects people who have experienced repetitive, overwhelming trauma, such as severe child abuse or neglect. Dissociation appears to be the brain's way of coping and separating from trauma, which can make it more bearable. If you learned to dissociate in times of extreme stress as a child, it likely affected the way your concept of yourself developed. It might have even carried over into how you react to stressful situations as an adult. Trauma doesn't necessarily cause dissociation to develop, nor do you have to have experienced it to have symptoms of dissociation. What the Research Says Some early research that is using neuroimaging to examine people with BPD and dissociative symptoms has indicated that there might be actual changes in brain function and communication that contribute to dissociation. Researchers can use imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans to see the brains of people experiencing dissociation. Brain scans of people with BPD and dissociative symptoms have shown evidence of decreased activity in the limbic temporal areas of the brain, increased activity in the frontal area of the brain, and changes in communication between the two areas. More research in this area could help researchers determine which brain processes are related to dissociative symptoms, as well as make psychotherapy more targeted and beneficial for people who experience dissociation. What Causes BPD? Treatment Treatments for BPD such as dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) often include components that help reduce dissociation. Treatment for dissociation is usually based on building skills to help you reconnect with yourself, the present moment, and your current surroundings. Grounding is one skill that can be used to reduce dissociation. Grounding exercises involve using external stimuli and your five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste) to reconnect with the present. For example, a visual grounding exercise will have you observe small details in the environment around you until you are feeling more connected. Some people respond better to grounding exercises that use sensation to bring them back to reality, such as holding an ice cube for a few moments, chewing a piece of minty gum, or smelling a lemon. Self-Help Strategies for BPD Dissociative Disorders According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are two other main dissociative disorders: Dissociative amnesia Depersonalization/derealization disorder Certain mental health disorders have dissociation as a central feature rather than a symptom. For example, dissociative identity disorder (DID) is characterized by severe dissociation that causes a person to develop different personalities. The vast majority of people with dissociative identity disorder have experienced childhood abuse, including physical and/or sexual abuse, and neglect. A Word From Verywell Stress-related dissociative symptoms are common in people with BPD, but there can be a spectrum of severity. Some people with BPD experience minimal or mild symptoms of dissociation whereas others experience severe symptoms. Research suggests that the severity of a person's symptoms might be linked to an individual's history of abuse and trauma. Treating dissociative symptoms through therapy can be intense, as it often requires you to remember past abuse. While it can be difficult at times, therapy can help you learn to cope with your symptoms and improve your quality of life. How to Find a DBT Therapist 3 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Krause-Utz A, Elzinga B. Current understanding of the neural mechanisms of dissociation in borderline personality disorder. Curr Behav Neurosci Rep. 2018;5(1):113-123. doi:10.1007/s40473-018-0146-9 Şar V. The many faces of dissociation: opportunities for innovative research in psychiatry. Clin Psychopharmacol Neurosci. 2014;12(3):171-179. doi:10.9758/cpn.2014.12.3.171 Dorahy MJ, Middleton W, Seager L, McGurrin P, Williams M, Chambers R. Dissociation, shame, complex PTSD, child maltreatment and intimate relationship self-concept in dissociative disorder, chronic PTSD and mixed psychiatric groups. J Affect Disord. 2015;172:195-203. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2014.10.008 Additional Reading American Psychiatric Association. What Are Dissociative Disorders? Updated August 2018. American Psychiatric Association (APA). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington, DC: 2013. Choi-kain LW, Finch EF, Masland SR, Jenkins JA, Unruh BT. What works in the treatment of borderline personality disorder. Curr Behav Neurosci Rep. 2017;4(1):21-30. doi:10.1007/s40473-017-0103-z By Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for BPD Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.