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Dissociation: Definition, Symptoms and Causes

Dissociation: Definition, Symptoms and Causes

Imagine one day of having a feeling that everything around you is not real.  Your environment.  Your family and friends.  And even you own body doesn’t feel real.

This sense of detachment from one’s body, thoughts, and surroundings is known as dissociation.

Dissociation occurs for a variety of reasons and is often triggered by past or present trauma.  While many think of dissociation as a psychosis, but it is not.  

People who dissociate are not psychotic.  Instead, dissociation is a way for the brain to protect itself from relieving traumatic experiences.

Unfortunately, the disorder is more complex and includes symptoms that can interfere with one’s life.

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What Is The Dissociation Definition?

Think of the dissociation definition as an umbrella term representing five different disorders each with their own characteristics.  

Although it is argued dissociation is a coping mechanism that may be therapeutic at times, it is a series of disorders affecting all aspects of life, whether mild or severe.

Before learning about the symptoms, we first need to understand the five subsets’ disorders under the umbrella term of dissociation disorders.

5 Types of Dissociation


Depersonalization is one form of dissociation where a person feels as though they themselves are not really. 

Many people with this dissociation definition feel as though they are experiencing an out-of-body experience in which they can see themselves outside their own body. 

Similar to watching yourself complete daily activities outside of your own body.


Derealization is detachment from your own experiences, not your body.  This means your environment and the people around you do seem or feel real.  


With this form of detachment, you forget specific important information and/or events. 

It’s important to note that this type of amnesia is not due to substance abuse.  This type of dissociation can become extreme to the point that you can travel not remember how, where, or why you left in the first place.

This dissociation is also known as “dissociative fugue.”

Identity Confusion

This is a sense of you not knowing who you are.  While you may still be familiar with your likes and dislikes in life you now find yourself questioning who you are you your place in the world. 

You may suddenly forget details of your past and are confused about your current identity of who you are.

Identity Alteration

Identity alteration is the most severe of the dissociation identity disorders.  This is where an individuals personality “split” from one another.  You may hear voices with distinct personalities.  

To be diagnosed with “identity alteration” DID, you need to have two or more personalities within the same person.

This dissociation typically occurs in conjunction with dissociative amnesia as well.

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dissociation definition

What Are The Signs Of Dissociation

Each of the subtypes of dissociation display differently.  However, many of the symptoms of the dissociation subtypes have similar symptoms and “cross-over” between subtypes.  

Also keep in mind mental health disorders of any kind display themselves differently depending on the individual.

Common Symptoms Of Dissociation

  • Memory loss 
  • Missing gaps of time from memory
  • Sense of detachment from the physical body
  • Sense of detachment from emotions
  • Losing a sense of self-identity
  • Having an out-of-body experience
  • Significant stress or trauma
  • Trouble handling daily stress or routine changes that cause stress
  • Feeling like people and places around you are not real

What Triggers Dissociative Disorders

Two words: Stress and trauma!  The brain needs a break.  Dissociation is simply the brain’s defense mechanism for saving itself from reliving the trauma.

Dissociation disorder is not something that someone does on purpose.  They don’t purposefully try and “check out” of their lives.  

The symptoms associated with dissociation typically come on suddenly without notice as a way to cope with severe stress and/trauma.

Common triggers for the dissociation definition include: 

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Natural disaster
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Neglect

It is worth mentioning that dissociation symptoms can be caused by drug abuse.  However, if an individual stopped their drug use the dissociation will typically subside.  

If dissociative symptoms still occur after drug use is discontinued, then the dissociation itself is linked to stress and trauma that will need further assistance from a healthcare professional.

While many people think dissociation only occurs in individuals with a history of childhood abuse, dissociation can start at any age. 

Such triggers as extreme stress from a natural disaster, assault, or abusive relationship is able to trigger dissociation.

dissociation definition

What Can Be Done About Dissociation?

For some individuals, dissociation will subside on its own, although its takes time.  However, dissociation is a disorder that has the capability to interfere with work, family life, and relationships.

For any type of dissociation, especially with switching personalities, it’s important to seek treatment!

Whether you have one episode of dissociation or you’re having multiple episodes in a week, one episode is enough to talk to your healthcare provider about.  

Why?  Because if stress levels remain the same or increase in your life, dissociative episodes will increase.  Your brain can only take so much stress and trauma, therefore, your brain will protect itself and you essentially from the pain to try and make your life better.

Treatments Options For Dissociation:


Therapy is the primary treatment recommendation for treating dissociation.  Many different types of therapy (depending on your preference) can help you…

  • Get to the root cause of the dissociation
  • Identify what type of dissociation you have
  • What causes you stress in life
  • What stressors you need to work on reducing or eliminating
  • Techniques you can implement to help reduce episodes of dissociation


While there is not a specific medication to treatment Dissociation Identity Disorder, there are medications to treat depression and anxiety which are often seen as co-occurring disorders along with dissociation.

Talk to your provider about the symptoms of DID you’re experiencing and what medication would work best for treating it.

Stress Reducing Techniques

The most important aspect of dissociation disorder is stress and trauma that fuel the symptoms.  So it’s only logical to try and reduce stress in your life for the body and mind.  

Some stress reducing techniques include:

  • Muscle relaxation therapy
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Stress reducing hobby
  • Balanced nutrition

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Final Thoughts

Dissociation is so much more than mere personality splitting.  This disorder is an umbrella term for many different types of disorders related to Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Many with dissociation deal with depersonalizion and derealization.  No matter the dissociation type, all the subtypes have the potential to interrupt daily life.

What’s important to remember most about all the subtypes of dissociation is that it is triggered by extreme stress and trauma.  No one asks for dissociation or fakes it.

It is the brain’s way of going into survival mode to product itself from stress and trauma. 

Whether you or someone you know is dealing with dissociation symptoms…  Seek help!  It doesn’t matter if an individual experiences one episode or multiple episodes of dissociation.  

With time, dissociation does become worse.  Thankfully, there are many things you can do to help relieve the symptoms and possibly eliminate dissociation all together.


Works Cited

The 5 Types of Dissociative Disorders | Psych Central

Dissociation and dissociative disorders – Better Health Channel

Dissociative Identity Disorder: Treatment and Recovery | Psych Central


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