Dissociation can show up in a range of different ways in individuals from very specific symptoms that are temporary to a pervasive experience that permeates almost every aspect of a person's life and takes multiple forms. Dissociation essentially describes a disconnection. This disconnection can make a person feel removed from their body, create a sense that a person is separate from the events going on around them, unlinked from their own memories, or disconnected from thoughts and/or emotions.
A person may have the sensation that their hands or another part of their body do not belong to them or they may feel as if they are living life in a movie or play. In more complicated cases, dissociation in an individual might cause them to be disconnected from their own history and aspects of their current life. As a result, they may experience memory blanks or have symptoms of voice hearing.
In order to manage or decrease dissociation it's important to first recognize the adaptive qualities that helped to support an individual to cope with difficult situations in the past. If a person is involved in a potentially life threatening accident, the shock that occurs is one form of dissociation that assists a person in detaching from the gravity of the situation. This state of shock can make it easier for the person to detach from pain and allow others to help them to a safer place such as a hospital. A very small child might not have the options to fight or run away from threats like a larger child can and so utilizes the freeze response to detach from emotions and physical sensations so that they have a better chance of surviving the assault.
If an individual experiences repetitive frightening experiences and utilizes dissociation as a regular means to cope, dissociation may start to become a more regular go to response to less intense but still stressful experiences. With some people, dissociation even starts to intrude in non-stressful moments and becomes a general way to manage day to day life.
This becomes more problematic when an individual is no longer in the same life situations that prompted the dissociation in the first place. However, since a chronic dissociative response is created over a long period of time and it served and/or is still serving a purpose, the path to reducing dissociation is not a fast one. When the process is rushed without paying attention to developing grounding and safety skills first, it can create even more difficulties and increase the dissociative response. Over time, it is possible to feel more connected with one's life, one's body, and even one's own sense of joy.
Catherine Keech, LMFT