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Dissociation is a psychological phenomenon that, according to the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors, “describes a state in which the integrated functioning of a person’s identity, including consciousness, memory, and awareness of surroundings, is disrupted or eliminated.” While not all people that experience dissociation will have a diagnosable disorder, there are three distinct types of dissociative disorders, listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which are dissociative amnesia, dissociative identity disorder (DID), and depersonalization-derealization disorder. Experts attribute the cause of dissociation symptoms to develop due to a break in the cohesive functioning of one’s inner world. Dissociation is specifically influenced by the disruption of four key areas (identity, memory, consciousness, and awareness of oneself and surroundings) of personal functioning that typically operate automatically and seamlessly. 


It is impossible to explain exactly what dissociation feels like, as everyone is different and each experiencing an episode of dissociation will be unique to each person. For those diagnosed with a dissociative disorder, the symptoms that develop will directly correlate with that disorder. A study published in Access Advances in Psychiatric Treatment asserts that general symptoms of dissociation can include changes in bodily senses and a reduced ability to react emotionally. The symptoms of dissociation are often broken into five overarching categories, which include:

  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

The symptoms of dissociation can range from mild to severe, and last varied durations. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) provides examples of more severe symptoms of dissociation including perceptual alterations, emotional or physical numbing, distorted sense of time and space, unreal, unstable, or absent self, etc. An episode of dissociation can also cause an individual to feel as though their heart is pounding and/ or experience symptoms of light-headedness. Anxiety can be a cause or a result of dissociation.


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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