Dissociation is a disturbance or alteration in the normally integrative functions of identity, memory, and consciousness. Most people have experienced it at one time or another. A common example is “spacing out” on a bus or train and missing your stop. Dissociation could also involve mentally leaving one’s body and looking at it from a distance when experiencing a trauma. Or having a blank spell that is not associated with substance use. A dramatic case would be someone who travels to a new location and does not remember how or why he arrived there.
Think of dissociation as “dis-associating” or compartmentalizing different pieces of mental and emotional experience. It is a common part of everyday experience and also nature’s way of protecting us from overwhelming pain, a natural defense mechanism that helps us to survive in very painful experiences. Dissociation interrupts the integration of information in the human brain. It blocks the integration of memories into the present context. It also makes it impossible for someone to integrate an experience into personal memory or identity. Examples are amnesia (memory loss), depersonalization (changes in self experience), derealization (changes in the perception of reality), fugues (finding oneself in a new location after a blank spell), identity confusion, personality partition, and some physical experiences including motor weakness and paralysis.
Sometimes people continue to use dissociation long after it is really needed. It has outlived its usefulness as an intra-psychic defense mechanism. Sometimes dissociation shows up in therapy sessions as clients begin to work through and reframe old, difficult experiences. A good therapist can help clients who are dissociating learn to re-alert themselves and move out of the dissociative pattern to be more fully present. Individual psychotherapy can help someone with dissociative patterns learn more flexible, manageable coping strategies. And, of course, therapy can help you work through and resolve the difficult memories that made dissociation necessary.