Dissociation is a word that is used to describe the disconnection or lack of connection between things usually associated with each other. Dissociated experiences are not integrated into the usual sense of self, resulting in discontinuities in conscious awareness. In severe forms of dissociation, disconnection occurs in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception. For example, someone may think about an event that was tremendously upsetting yet have no feelings about it. Clinically, this is termed emotional numbing, one of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dissociation is a psychological process commonly found in persons seeking mental health treatment.
Dissociation may affect a person subjectively in the form of “made” thoughts, feelings, and actions. These are thoughts or emotions seemingly coming out of nowhere, or finding oneself carrying out an action as if it were controlled by a force other than oneself (Dell, 2001). Typically, a person feels “taken over” by an emotion that does not seem to makes sense at the time. Feeling suddenly, unbearably sad, without an apparent reason, and then having the sadness leave in much the same manner as it came, is an example. Or someone may find himself or herself doing something that they would not normally do but unable to stop themselves, almost as if they are being compelled to do it. This is sometimes described as the experience of being a “passenger” in one’s body, rather than the driver.
There are five main ways in which the dissociation of psychological processes changes the way a person experiences living: depersonalization, derealization, amnesia, identity confusion, and identity alteration.
Treatment should move the patient toward better integrated functioning
whenever possible. There are three phases or stages of treatment:
1. Establishing safety, stabilization, and symptom reduction;
2. Confronting, working through, and integrating traumatic memories; and
3. Identity integration and rehabilitation.