Dissociation and dissociative states - A brief introduction

A simple Internet search will no doubt bring you an overwhelming amount of information on the term dissociation, and it can be difficult to understand what dissociation means in real terms, and more importantly, how it may impact on you. It is my aim to briefly look at dissociation, what causes it, how it affects people, dissociation in everyday life, some common symptoms of dissociation and a brief exploration of a few dissociative states.

What Is dissociation?

To experience dissociation, means to become detached from your feelings, memories or thoughts, to lose touch with your internal or external world or find yourself feeling disconnected to your own sense of self and who you are. The process of dissociation occurs along a wide spectrum, and can move between severe cases and everyday occurrences. Everyday occurrences such as drifting off when reading a book or driving somewhere and forgetting how you got there. At the severe end are disorders such as identity alteration, where an individual may experience a noticeable change in their personality.

Dissociation can also be used as a defence mechanism, and can be the way our unconscious mind manages, minimises or tolerates stress, anger or conflict and protects us from re-experiencing or remembering a painful event. This automatic response and separation from traumatic memories and difficult feelings is necessary in some cases, and can be a means for survival for people who otherwise would have no ability to cope with unmanageable feelings.

What causes dissociation?

Research has shown that repetitive childhood physical or sexual abuse are the most prominent factors in the development of dissociation, and dissociative states. These states develop in childhood as a way to cope and manage experiences, which are otherwise intolerable.

Dissociation can also be caused by a number of other traumatic events such as rape, torture, experiencing a natural disaster or living through or experiencing war as a soldier or civilian. Dissociation can in some cases, be caused by growing up in a household that was frightening or highly unpredictable. 

Our personal identity is still forming during our childhood, and children are more able to step outside of themselves, and observe trauma as if it were happening to somebody else. A child who learns to dissociate in order to endure an extended period of youth may use this coping mechanism in response to stressful situations throughout life.

In the context of chronic or severe childhood abuse and trauma, dissociation can be considered adaptive, as it reduces the overwhelming distress created by trauma. However, if dissociation continues to be used in adulthood, it can be maladaptive, meaning that the adult may automatically disconnect from situations that are perceived as dangerous or threatening, without taking time to determine whether there is any real danger. This leaves the person spaced out in many situations in ordinary life, and unable to protect themselves in conditions of real danger.

How does dissociation affect people?

Dissociation can affect how you perceive experiences, thoughts and feelings and alter your perception about your behaviour, body and memory. The impact of dissociation varies on the individual experiencing it and can change over time.

Dissociation can alter your sense of reality and your ability to judge and understand situations. Your sense of reality depends on your feelings, sensation and thoughts, and if these become disconnected or not registered consciously, your identify and sense of self can change.

Dissociation in everyday life

Dissociation occurs much more commonly and with more frequency than we may believe, and it can be common for us to experience mild symptoms of dissociation such as not feeling any sense of joy, or the loss in pleasure of enjoyable activities.

Dissociation may often go unnoticed, or we may not consciously recognise it as being important. These low level dissociative experiences could be for example, feeling as though you are operating on autopilot, getting lost in a book, driving and suddenly realising that you do not remember the last few miles that you drove.

Another example of dissociation could be for example, during an argument with a partner, loved one or friend, where we switch off or pretend the argument isn’t happening. In times of heightened stress and anxiety, it can be common to ignore a problem which makes it easier to manage the painful feelings you may be experiencing.

 Some effects of dissociation

  • Finding yourself in a strange place and not remembering how you got there.
  • Experiencing gaps in memory.
  • Forgetting important information or appointments.
  • Being unable to recognise yourself in the mirror.
  • Feeling as if life is not real.
  • Feeling detached from your feelings.
  • Being unsure of the boundaries between you and others.
  • Feeling like a stranger to yourself.
  • Internal voices and dialogue.
  • A sense that people you know are strangers.
  • Being told by others that you have behaved out of character.

Dissociative states

Below are listed a few of the different types of dissociative states, and a brief summary of their symptoms.


  • You are unable to recall incidents or experiences which occurred at a particular time.
  • You are unable to remember important personal information.


  • Feeling as though your body is not your own.
  • Experiencing feelings of changing or dissolving.
  • Out of body experiences, feeling as if you are watching a film of your life.


  • Experiencing the perception of your external world changing.
  • Your environment may change or lack in spontaneity or depth.
  • Objects may change in colour, shape or size.
  • An experience that those around you aren’t real, or are robot.

Identity confusion

  • Feeling unsure about who you are.
  • Struggling to define yourself.
  • Uncertain of your ideas, thoughts or feelings.

Identity alteration

  • Experiencing a shift in your identity which changes your behaviour.
  • Others notice how you have changed.
  • A noticeable change of your behaviours in different environments, for example you may be different at work then you are at home.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N6 & NW5
Written by Joshua Miles, BA, MSc, BPC, BACP Accredited Psychodynamic Psychotherapist
London N6 & NW5

Joshua is an experienced Bereavement Counsellor Therapist with particular expertise working with sudden or abrupt loss. He has helped many people work through the pain of their loss. Joshua also has experience of working with a wide range of issues such as loneliness, isolation, depression, relationship difficulties and anxiety.

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