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.

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

If you dissociate for a long time, especially when you are young, you may develop a dissociative disorder. Instead of dissociation being something you experience for a short time it becomes a far more common experience, and is often the main way you deal with stressful experiences.

"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?

Dissociation

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 don't have a diagnosed dissociative disorder.

Having difficulty remembering personal information

You might:

  • have gaps in your life where you can't remember anything that happened
  • not be able to remember information about yourself or about things that happened in your life.

A doctor or psychiatrist might call these experiences dissociative amnesia.

Travelling to a different location or taking on a new identity

You might travel to a different location and take on a new identity for a short time (without remembering your identity).

A doctor or psychiatrist might call these experiences dissociative fugue.

Feeling like the world around you is unreal

You might:

  • feel as though the world around you is unreal
  • see objects changing in shape, size or colour
  • see the world as 'lifeless' or 'foggy'
  • feel as if other people are robots (even though you know they are not).

A doctor or 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:

  • feel your identity shift and change
  • speak in a different voice or voices
  • use a different name or names
  • switch between different parts of your personality
  • 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 doctor or 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 as though there are different people inside you.

A doctor or psychiatrist might call these experiences identify confusion.

What are triggers and flashbacks?

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

In a flashback, you may suddenly experience traumatic sensations or feelings from the past. This might be prompted by encountering a trigger. You may experience the flashback as reliving a traumatic event in the present. A flashback may cause you to switch to another part of your identity.

If you have dissociated memories (because of amnesia or because you experience different identity states with different memories) then you may find that these resurface during flashbacks.

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

This information was published in March 2019. We will revise it in 2022.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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