Therapists and clients may both experience dissociation as confusing or frightening. Dissociation doesn’t have to be complicated though – it can be simplified to the message “my mind keeps taking me away from the present moment”. Dissociation can be separated into everyday and pathological versions. Everyday dissociation, an example of which might be ‘driving on autopilot’ is a consequence of becoming so absorbed that attention is not automatically redirected to other stimuli. Pathological dissociation often occurs in the context of trauma. When experienced during a traumatic experience dissociation is understood to be a self-preservation reaction, designed to prevent further injury or to prevent the antagonization of a perpetrator. When experienced after a trauma dissociation might be understood as a form of ‘tuning in’ to traumatic memories (flashbacks) or ‘tuning out’ from the world. The Types Of Dissociation information handout is designed for clients who have experienced trauma and describes dissociation using accessible terminology.
“Do you ever have the experience where you have an unwanted memory from the past? Or do you experience times when you ‘zone out’ or lose track of time? Sometimes psychologists call experiences like these ‘dissociation’. And really it just means ‘my mind keeps taking me away from the present moment’. These experiences might feel strange or scary, but they are actually really common responses to traumatic, frightening, or inescapable situations.”
- Kennedy, F., Kennerley, H., & Pearson, D. (Eds.). (2013). Cognitive behavioural approaches to the understanding and treatment of dissociation. Routledge.
- Schauer, M., & Elbert, T. (2010). Dissociation following traumatic stress: Etiology and treatment. Journal of Psychology, 218, 109-127.