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 causes dissociation and dissociative disorders?
There are many experiences that can cause dissociation. Different experiences might lead us to experience dissociation briefly, or for a longer period.
Brief experiences of dissociation are quite common. They can happen to us all sometimes. For example, during periods of intense stress or when we’re very tired. Some people also find that using drugs like cannabis can cause feelings of derealisation and depersonalisation.
Dissociation is also a normal way of coping during traumatic events. For example, some people may dissociate while experiencing war, kidnapping or during a medical emergency. In situations we can't physically get away from, dissociation can protect us from distress.
Dissociation is a natural response to trauma while it's happening. But some of us may still experience dissociation long after the traumatic event has finished. Past experiences of dissociation during traumatic events may mean that you haven't processed these experiences fully.
If you experience trauma in childhood, dissociation may become a way that you cope with this trauma over a long time. Your brain and personality are still developing in childhood, so you may not learn other ways of dealing with other kinds of stress. This may mean you develop a dissociative disorder as an adult. Examples of trauma include:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Severe neglect
- Emotional abuse
How can trauma lead to dissociation?
Experts believe that trauma can cause dissociation because of the way we respond to threat. There are different theories about how this happens.
There are a few ways that we might instinctively respond in a threatening situation.
You may have heard of the fight-or-flight responses. These are instinctive responses to threat that involve either fighting back against the danger or running away from it.
Sometimes you can’t do these things and will respond differently. If you’re very young, or in a situation you can't get away from, your response to the threat may be more passive, such as:
- The freeze response, which makes the body immobile. You might feel paralysed or unable to move. This response is most often linked to dissociation. Dissociation in humans is like when animals freeze when they’re in danger.
- The fawn response, which is where you try to please or win over the source of the threat to prevent it from causing you harm.
If you experience dissociation during a traumatic event, you may separate different parts of the experience so you don’t have to deal with them all together. Different aspects of the experience may not feel 'joined up'. Your actions, memories, feelings, thoughts, sensations and perceptions may feel separate.
For example, you might store your memories of an experience in a way that you can’t access day-to-day. This is usually called amnesia. You might also remember what happened but not feel the emotions or sensations that were part of it.
If you experience dissociative identity disorder (DID), you might feel as if different memories or sensations happened to different people. This is usually called having different identity states.
This can help you cope if the things that happened would be too much for you to deal with all together as a child. But it may make it hard for you to develop one clear identity as you grow up.
I would disconnect myself from being in the room where the abuse was happening. I almost felt like I was watching it happen to me but I wasn't feeling it or wasn't part of it. It became something that happened automatically.
For more support you can contact these organisations:
- The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) offers support for adults who were abused as children.
- Survivors UK provides support for men who have been abused.
- Childline is there to help children who are upset or scared about anything, including abuse.
- If you are worried about a child you know, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) can help.
- The Survivors Trust provides contact with local organisations which offer support for people who have experiences sexual abuse.
- For other organisations which may be able to help you, see our useful contacts page.
This information was published in January 2023. We will revise it in 2026.
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