Dissociation – causes and mechanisms

Disclaimer: this is not meant as a substitute for expert advice, and help from a professional is the safest way to find answers for your concerns.

Trigger warning: reference to trauma and abuse.

Causes of dissociation

It is the widely held belief that dissociation is caused by significant trauma. Now, what is significant can vary from person to person. Contrary to common held belief there is no universal yard stick for what is and is not a traumatic experience.

A lot of research has gone into understanding trauma, but efforts on defining what constitutes a traumatic event has been ultimately abandoned. Commonalities of traumatic events such as hostility and threat are accepted but a more nuanced understanding recognises that what constitutes a trauma is an individual matter.

Many like to view trauma as an external matter, what has happened to you. It is more accurate to view trauma as internal, what you felt as events took place. This understanding far better explains the apparent variation in trauma responses from person to person.

What traumatizes one person may not traumatize another, even if the event or events they experienced were the same or similar. A multitude of personal and situational factors influence an individual’s relationship to a potentially traumatic event.

With such variation it stands to reason why there are so many disorders associated with dissociation and trauma. For many individuals, dissociation is the brains attempt and protecting you. But how does this occur?

Mechanisms of dissociation

It is commonly understood that dissociation occurs more frequently in people that have a pre-existing inclination to imagine. Yes, to imagine or day dream allows us to exist in alternate realities. Linking back to the first article in this series, many of us dissociate when we watch TV or a movie. We become emotionally engaged and moved by what we are viewing even though we know it to be fictional or staged.

This ability for dissociative states to elicit emotion is also seen in reverse. Individuals with the ability to imagine that find themselves in hostile or unsafe environments can subconsciously or consciously escape from this unpleasant environment by way of their imagination.

Escaping an environment by way of dissociation is frequently seen in children from abusive homes. Like we can escape to a dissociative state of joy or sadness when we watch TV we can also escape negative emotions in our real environment and ‘switch’ to a safer imagined or dissociated environment to protect ourselves when we become overwhelmed. This explanation is used to justify why dissociation occur in adults.

A defence mechanism out of control

Dissociation offers us an escape from negative emotions we cannot do anything about. As children have little autonomy or power in our society it is theorized dissociation is frequently used as an escape because they have no tangible control to remove themselves from the environment.

This route of escape can become a learned behaviour. Meaning that adults can experience dissociation when they become overwhelmed. This can explain why people often experience dissociation as part of an anxiety or depressive disorder. The extreme emotions are too much to handle and the brain switches to a dissociative state as a form of protection.

Issues occur as dissociation is in essence avoidance of the consciousness, making it very hard to function while dissociated. Deficits in memory, knowledge, attention and perception are all altered during dissociative states, making it hard to meet any of the demands of every day life. Not to mention, the experience of dissociation can be unnerving.

For many people, their trauma or previous dissociative experiences may be alien to them, pushed to the back of their mind in a dissociative haze. Meaning that each and every time can feel as unfamiliar and bizarre as the first. Unsurprisingly this can provoke anxiety in people, which can further drive them onto a path of dissociation as they question what is wrong and why their thoughts feel so alien to them.

For people experiencing dissociation there are tips and techniques to help manage the experience. These techniques may not 100% remove you from the dissociative state, but they can provide a sense of routine and control for those of us that struggle with the uncontrollable nature of dissociation.


Dissociation – two sides of the same coin

So, what is dissociation?

Dissociation is a much debated and difficult to articulate concept that alludes being pinned down by one succinct definition. This altered state of being can be experienced by most people as a typical part of their day-to-day lives. Many of us will be familiar with the experience of driving on autopilot and getting to your destination safely. This is a normal and non-disruptive procedural dissociative state. The brain functions guiding you in this state function beyond your conscious attention, you are present yet absent.

Another example of dissociation can also be seen in everyday hypnotic states. When watching a film or a television programme you find yourself emotionally moved by what you are viewing despite no real impact being made to your life or well-being.

Unfortunately, dissociation has a more disruptive, darker side. Commonly experienced as a significant disconnection between conscious attention, awareness and ones understanding of reality. Dissociation is often likened to seeing oneself floating, separate from oneself, or as living life in third person. This may be experienced as ongoing feelings of unreality of one’s self or surroundings (derealisation/depersonalisation) seen as part of PTSD, Bipolar disorders (BP), personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD).

These often have a basis in anxiety or trauma which often mitigate the levels of dissociation experienced. Contrastingly, dissociation can be caused by deep rooted identity manifestations such that seen in Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and the DSM-5-unrecognised variations Otherwise Specified Dissociative Disorder (OSDD) variants A & B. This is not an exhaustive list of disorders and dissociative experiences, but an overview of dissociation in the context of mental disorders.

Due to this complexity, dissociation is an increasingly hard to categorize phenomena. For more on this, look no further than part 2.