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Dissociation is a mental process of disconnecting from one’s feelings, thoughts, sense of identity, and/ or memories. The Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors, explains that dissociation is a psychological phenomenon that “describes a state in which the integrated functioning of a person’s identity, including consciousness, memory, and awareness of surroundings, is disrupted or eliminated.” Dissociation is specifically influenced by the disruption of four areas of personal functioning (identity, memory, consciousness, and awareness of oneself and surroundings) that are designed to operate automatically and seamlessly. The exact causes of dissociation remain unknown, but various sources have identified certain risk factors (e.g., drug abuse, exposure to life-threatening or traumatic events, such as extreme violence, war, kidnapping, childhood abuse, etc., the presence of other mental health conditions) that may increase one’s susceptibility.  

What Does It Feel Like?

Dissociation is an overload response that works as a subconscious coping mechanism for an individual to temporarily avoid a traumatic situation, alleviate emotional overwhelm, and/ or evade negative thoughts. Every person is unique and therefore, dissociation is inevitably different for everyone. A study published in Access Advances in Psychiatric Treatment explains that general symptoms of dissociation often include changes in bodily senses and a reduced ability to react emotionally. The symptoms of dissociation can range from mild to severe and are often broken into the following five overarching categories:

  1. Depersonalization: feeling detached from one’s thoughts, feelings, and body
    • Becoming fully engrossed in something (e.g., a movie, a book, etc.) to the point of becoming unaware of what is going on in one’s surroundings
    • Having an out-of-body experience (e.g., an individual feeling as though he or she is floating away or watching themselves from a distance)
  2. Derealization: feeling disconnected from one’s environment
    • Daydreaming
    • Zoning out (e.g., scrolling through social media and suddenly noticing hours have passed)
  3. Dissociative amnesia: experiencing retrospective memory gaps 
    • Unable to remember important information about one’s life, history, and/ or identity
  4. Identity confusion: feeling unsure of one’s sense of self or place in the world
    • Obsessive behaviors (e.g., an individual repeatedly looking in the mirror to check and make sure that they are real)
  5. Identity alteration: the sense of being markedly different from another part of oneself

Severe symptoms of dissociation, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), could include perceptual alterations, emotional or physical numbing, distorted sense of time and space, unreal, unstable, or absent self, etc. The severity, combination, and duration of symptoms will vary from person to person. Individuals that dissociate do not necessarily experience symptoms from all five categories simultaneously, and further, dissociation can present as symptoms that may only be attributed to one of the above categories.  


The information above is provided for the use of informational purposes only. The above content is not to be substituted for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment, as in no way is it intended as an attempt to practice medicine, give specific medical advice, including, without limitation, advice concerning the topic of mental health. As such, please do not use any material provided above to disregard professional advice or delay seeking treatment. 

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