Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
Mental Health

Dissociation: How your mind copes with trauma

Have you ever felt a random out of body experience before? Maybe there was a time you felt like an observer in your own body, or you experienced a sensation of being drunk or high for no reason at all? It is predicated that up to 50-75% of people experience a depersonalization/derealization episode at least once in their life, but only around 2% of people are diagnosed with a dissociative disorder.

The DSM-5 categorizes dissociative disorders as disruption and/or discontinuity of consciousness, memory, identity, memory, perception, body representation, motor control, and behaviour. In other words, it is an involuntary escape from reality and disconnection with oneself and one’s surroundings. The two most common types of dissociation that I will share are derealization and depersonalization.

Depersonalization


sad and alone girl breakup
Photo by _Mxsh_ from Unsplash

Depersonalization involves feelings of disconnection with oneself. Symptoms include;

  • Feeling like an observer in your own body
  • Feeling like a robot not in control of your actions or emotions
  • Sensation of numbness or emptiness 
  • Altered sense of time
  • Feeling like you lack your memories, or your memories aren’t your own

Derealization


A long-exposure shot of a moving subway train and advertisement posters at the station
Mario Calvo/Unsplash

A large majority of people who experience dissociation would argue that derealization is the more traumatic and/or agressive experience of the two (although that is not true for everyone).

Derealization involves feelings of disconnection with the world around you. Symptoms include;

  • Feeling like you are in a movie or a dream
  • Feeling like you are moving in slow motion
  • Your surroundings appear blurry, distorted, or artificial
  • You feel high or drunk but for no reason at all
  • Your surroundings don’t feel real

Why it happens

Sometimes our body disconnects from itself and/or its surroundings in order to cope with trauma or overwhelming amounts of anxiety. This is called dissociation. It is a natural survival response to something that may be overwhelming/overstimulating to give our mind and senses a break.

It is a great survival instinct, but obviously it is a coping mechanism not necessary in this day in age. More often than not, dissociative episodes cause a lot of distress and fear in the person experiencing dissociation because they are aware it is an abnormal sensation that shouldn’t be experienced. This can cause the fear that they are becoming crazy, trigger extreme anxiety and/or panic attacks.

Dissociation can also sometimes be induced by marijuana. Some people report the feeling of being high never ‘going away’, even after going to sleep. They may also feel a constant state of disconnection, a tingling feeling, or continue to experience the high past the point where the feelings should persist. If it the sensation has persisted for multiple hours, it is most likely no longer the result of the weed. At this point, you are most likely dissociating. If you experience this, remember that this is just your body playing tricks on you and you are not in any kind of danger. The drug has passed through your system.

If dissociation is something you experience please know that you are NOT crazy, and you are SAFE. Not understanding what is happening to you and being unsure of how to describe it can make things even harder, but this feeling is normal, and it has a name!

Does it go away?


Person Alone on a dock
Pexels

YES! Dissociation is meant to go away after a couple minutes! The reason it hangs around for hours or days is because it is our body’s way of coping with trauma, and your fixation on the dissociative sensation puts yourself in constant distress which prevents it from passing. 

I personally find the best way of coping with dissociation is by making peace with it. That is a task much easier said than done, but by accepting the sensations of being out of control and letting it take over your body during an episode helps to remove the fear of dissociating. It’s okay to not be in control! We cannot always be in control of our own bodies and that is okay – the more you are able to accept that, the less afraid you will be of having an episode, and the less impact it will have on your life.

Dissociation can cause you to feel very helpless and scared of your own body, but you are not alone. Reach out to your family doctor for different treatment methods and find a therapist our counsellor you can talk to.

Mental illness is not a life-sentence, it is something you can and WILL overcome 

Olivia Onesi

U Ottawa '24

Olivia enjoys binge reading her favourite young adult novels and going for evening runs. She is a second year psychology student at the University of Ottawa and can be found scrolling endlessly on TikTok.
Similar Reads👯‍♀️