What Is Dissociation?

Female looking out of window, with her reflection looking back at her

David Ryle / Stone / Getty Images

What is Dissociation?

Dissociation is a disconnection between a person's memories, feelings, behaviors, perceptions, and/or sense of self. This disconnection is automatic and completely out of the person's control. It's often described as an "out of body" experience.

Dissociation exists on a spectrum that ranges from mild everyday experiences to disorders that interfere with daily functioning. Nearly everyone experiences mild dissociation from time to time. In fact, daydreaming is a prime and common example of mild dissociation.

However, long or persistent dissociative episodes can be a symptom of a larger mental health problem such as a dissociative disorder

Symptoms

There are five core symptoms of dissociation:

  • Amnesia: Often described as "gaps" in memory that can range from minutes to years
  • Depersonalization: Feeling disconnected from your body or thoughts
  • Derealization: Feeling disconnected from the world around you
  • Identity alteration: The sense of being markedly different from another part of yourself
  • Identity confusion: A sense of confusion about who you really are

For some people, these symptoms can last days or weeks. If you have a dissociative disorder, you might experience these symptoms for months, even years.

You can have symptoms of dissociation without having a dissociative disorder. You can also have symptoms of dissociation as part of another mental illness like anxiety.

Types of Dissociative Disorders

Some people experience long-lasting or recurring bouts of disconnect. When this happens, it might signal a dissociative disorder. The current "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5) identifies three types of dissociative disorders:

  • Depersonalization-derealization disorder: This dissociative disorder is characterized by persistent or recurring episodes of depersonalization, derealization, or both. It's often described as feeling as if you're observing yourself as a character in a movie.
  • Dissociative identity disorder (DID): Formerly known as "multiple personality disorder," DID is a controversial disorder characterized by a person fragmenting into at least two distinct identities, or personality states.
  • Dissociative amnesia: A condition characterized by retrospectively reported memory gaps. These gaps involve the inability to recall personal information, usually related to a traumatic experience.

Other Associated Conditions

Dissociation is more than just a symptom of dissociative disorders. In actuality, dissociation can accompany almost every psychiatric condition, some of the most common being:

Causes

The exact cause of dissociation is unclear, but it is often a direct reaction to significant trauma. Specifically, dissociation typically affects people who have experienced physical or sexual abuse, kidnapping, a life-threatening car accident, or a natural disaster. It's important to note, however, that not everyone who experiences these traumas will dissociate.

Most researchers view dissociation as a protective response after trauma. It allows people to function and go about their day-to-day lives by blocking trauma-related emotions and memories that could otherwise be overwhelming.

Link Between Substance Use and Dissociation

Some substances, such as alcohol and cannabis, can trigger temporary episodes of dissociation. Usually, these substance-induced dissociative symptoms arise while the drug is active and fade after it wears off. Their effects typically begin within 20 minutes of ingestion and can last as long as 12 hours.

Dissociative drugs like DXM (dextromethorphan), ketamine, and PCP (phencyclidine) can also trigger dissociative episodes. But according to the DSM-5, the symptoms triggered by these substances don't meet the criteria for a diagnosis of the disorder.

Treatment

The primary treatment for dissociation involves psychotherapy. There are many different types of psychotherapy used to treat dissociation, including:

Throughout the course of therapy, you explore the initial experience that caused your dissociation symptoms. With the help of your therapist, you will safely confront this experience head-on so that you can move past it.

A Word From Verywell

Dissociation is a common reaction to trauma and a component of many mental disorders. Regardless of the cause, it is important to know that you are not alone. If you're concerned that you are experiencing dissociative symptoms, talk to a healthcare professional or someone knowledgeable you trust.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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.
  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

      

  2. Steinberg M. Handbook for the assessment of dissociation: A clinical guide. Vol 433. American Psychiatric Press; 1995.

  3. 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

  4. Loewenstein RJ. Dissociation debates: Everything you know is wrong. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2018;20(3):229-242.

  5. Granieri A, Guglielmucci F, Costanzo A, Caretti V, Schimmenti A. Trauma-related dissociation is linked with maladaptive personality functioning. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:206. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00206

  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What are the effects of common dissociative drugs on the brain and body? Updated February 2015.