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Dissociation and dissociative disorders

Explains what dissociation and dissociative disorders are, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

What is dissociation?

Many people may experience dissociation (dissociate) during their life.

If you dissociate, you may feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you. For example, you may feel detached from your body or feel as though the world around you is unreal. Remember, everyone’s experience of dissociation is different.

Dissociation is one way the mind copes with too much stress, such as during a traumatic event.

There are also common, everyday experiences of dissociation that you may have. Examples of this are when you become so absorbed in a book or film that you lose awareness of your surroundings. Or when you drive a familiar route and arrive at your destination without any memory of how you got there.

Experiences of dissociation can last for a short time (hours or days) or for much longer (weeks or months). 

Dissociation may be something that you experience for a short time while something traumatic is happening. But you also may have learned to dissociate as a way of coping with stressful experiences. This may be something that you’ve done since you were young.

I felt like my body didn't belong to me, it was like I was an outsider watching my own story unfold.

When might I dissociate?


Watch Paul, Anamoli, Hayley and Paul talk about what life is like with different types of dissociation.

How might I experience dissociation?

Dissociation can be experienced in lots of different ways.

Psychiatrists have tried to group these experiences and give them names. This can help doctors make a diagnosis of a specific dissociative disorder. But you can have any of these dissociative experiences even if you haven't been diagnosed with a dissociative disorder.

Having difficulty remembering personal information

You might:

  • Have gaps in your memory where you can't remember certain events
  • Not be able to remember information about yourself or your life history
  • Forget how to do something you’ve been able to do well in the past
  • Find that you have items that you don't remember ever owning

A psychiatrist might call these experiences dissociative amnesia.

Travelling to a different location or taking on a new identity

You might travel somewhere and forget how you got there. You may forget important details about yourself and take on a new identity during this time.

A psychiatrist might call these experiences dissociative fugue.

Feeling like the world around you is unreal

You might:

  • See objects changing in shape, size or colour
  • Feel detached or separate from the world around you
  • See the world as 'lifeless' or 'foggy'
  • Feel like you're seeing the world through a pane of glass
  • Feel like you're living in a dream
  • Feel as if other people are robots (even though you know they aren't)

A psychiatrist might call these experiences derealisation.

Feeling like you're looking at yourself from the outside

You might:

  • Feel as though you are watching yourself in a film or looking at yourself from the outside
  • Feel as if you are just observing your emotions
  • Feel disconnected from parts of your body or your emotions
  • Feel as if you are floating away
  • Feel unsure of the boundaries between yourself and other people

A doctor or psychiatrist might call these experiences depersonalisation.

Feeling your identity shift and change

You might:

  • Switch between different parts of your personality
  • Speak in a different voice or voices
  • Use a different name or names
  • Feel as if you are losing control to 'someone else'
  • Experience different parts of your identity at different times
  • Act like different people, including children

A psychiatrist might call these experiences identity alteration.

Difficulty defining what kind of person you are

You might:

  • Find it very difficult to define what kind of person you are
  • Feel like your opinions, tastes, thoughts and beliefs change a lot

A psychiatrist might call these experiences identity confusion.

What are triggers and flashbacks?

trigger is a reminder of something traumatic from the past, which can cause you to experience dissociation or other reactions. It could be something you hear, see, taste, smell or touch. It could also be a specific situation or way of moving your body. Many different things can be triggers.

In a flashback, you may suddenly experience traumatic sensations or feelings from the past. This might happen when you experience a trigger. The flashback might make you feel like you’re reliving a traumatic event in the present. The experience may cause you to switch to another part of your identity.

You may experience different identity states with different memories. These may resurface during flashbacks.

A flashback is a sudden, involuntary re-experiencing of a past traumatic event as if it's happening in the present.

This information was published in January 2023. We will revise it in 2026. 

References and bibliography available on request.

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