Understanding Dissociation and Depersonalisation

When Stress Makes You Shut Down: Understanding Dissociation and Depersonalisation

Most of us have moments when we space out and detach from situations we find overly stressful or emotionally taxing, but what about when these moments become a regular occurrence in dealing with everyday challenges? Dissociation can be a sign of a more serious mental health condition.

Have you ever felt completely disconnected from what’s going on around you? Most people will have at least one time in their lives where they feel almost outside their own body, both emotionally and physically detached from what is happening. This sensation might be brought on by the use of drugs or alcohol, experiencing a traumatic event, or being overwhelmed by stress or strong feelings.

For some people, particularly survivors of childhood trauma and those living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or anxiety, feelings of dissociation and depersonalisation may be a more common occurrence, and cause disruptions to daily life. Understanding why this happens, and how to reconnect during these moments, can help promote healing and better mental wellness.

What is Dissociation?

Dissociation occurs when a person feels disconnected from themselves and the world around them. It can be a healthy response to boredom, stress, trauma or emotional overload, allowing ourselves to avoid some of the strong physiological responses to a negative situation. However, if dissociation becomes a regular response to events in your daily life, this could be an indicator that it is a symptom of unresolved trauma or an underlying mental health issue.

Symptoms of dissociation

While some people are keenly aware of when they begin to dissociate, others may have a harder time identifying what is happening. Some common symptoms of dissociation include:

  • A feeling of disconnect from your sense of self, feelings, or body (also known as depersonalisation)
  • Challenges handling intense emotions or situations
  • Unexplained memory lapses, including around personal information or experiences
  • Abrupt changes in mood without a clear reason
  • Problems with concentration
  • Often feeling depressed or anxious
  • Feeling as though the world around you isn’t real

Understanding depersonalisation

Depersonalisation is an aspect of dissociation that involves a sense of detachment from your sense of self, your feelings, and identity. This can result in a feeling of floating outside your body, or a sense of watching yourself like you would a movie. Depersonalisation can also cause problems with concentration or memory, with some people feeling like they are in a fog.

It is important to note that depersonalisation doesn’t cause people to lose touch with reality; people are aware that this is an altered mental state. However, it can still be disconcerting and distracting to the person experiencing it.

Understanding the Connection Between Dissociation, Depersonalisation and Mental Health

Because the brain tends to dissociate when it is overwhelmed and unable to process something that is happening, frequent occurrences of dissociation indicate that a larger problem may be hiding under the surface. 

Childhood trauma and dissociation

Childhood trauma is a major contributing factor to dissociation, particularly for children who have experienced ongoing abuse. Used as a way to try to manage the fear, pain and shame of abuse, this coping mechanism can extend into adulthood, particularly if the trauma is not addressed through treatment and other coping mechanisms for stress are not developed. As an adult, dissociation might be experienced as long gaps in memory, or as depersonalisation during stressful events, such as arguments with a romantic partner.  

Mental health disorders linked to dissociation

Dissociation, including depersonalisation, is a recognised symptom of a variety of mental health disorders, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance abuse
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Phobias

If you have been diagnosed with one of these disorders, or suspect you may have one, it is possible that your dissociation is linked to this. Following up with a mental health professional can help to identify the source of this symptom and determine appropriate treatment.

Substance abuse disorders and dissociation

Substance use has strong links to dissociation, with many people drinking or using drugs specifically to disengage from their emotions or reality. Because dissociation is not only an effect of substance use, but often an underlying factor in addiction, it is important to examine this symptom closely to identify and treat root causes in order to fully address a substance abuse disorder.

Depression and Dissociation: Entertainer and Actress Ruby Rose Speaks Out

In honour of World Mental Health Day, Australian actress, DJ, and model Ruby Rose shared her experiences living with depression and complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and how it resulted in dissociative amnesia. She explained, “I was first diagnosed with depression at age 13, then major depression disorder at 16…I had a few years entirely erased from my memory and a chance run-in with my best friend from primary school was the first I learned about it…She remembered me but I didn’t recognise her at all.” 

Rose then asked her mother about this period. “I found out that I went from a smiling laughing child to a quiet mute who sat alone and stared off to the distance during recess after one of many traumatic events that I didn’t remember.”

Further along on her mental health journey, doctors discovered that Rose also lives with complex PTSD. She reflected that, “What I have learned from the struggles of mental health is just how strong I am…It’s that you cannot judge people at all because you can never know what they have been through. It’s that self-love and self-care [are] more important than anything else.”

Complications of Dissociation

Dissociation is a serious indicator that underlying trauma or mental health issues are affecting your daily life and overall sense of wellbeing. Without professional treatment, dissociation can create significant impacts to relationships and mental health, including things like:

  • Challenges in maintaining relationships
  • Increased risk of substance abuse
  • Problems with sex and intimacy
  • Difficulties in the workplace, including job loss
  • Insomnia and other sleep problems
  • Eating disorders

Seeking treatment for dissociation will help not only determine the root cause of the symptom, but address key underlying factors and develop other forms of coping for stress and trauma that are healthier. 

Reconnecting with Yourself at The Dawn

Reconnecting with Yourself at The Dawn

The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab is a mental health retreat in Thailand that fosters an environment of personal growth and healing for people who want to change their lives and build a more successful, happier, healthier future. The Dawn offers personalised, residential treatment plans for people living with a wide variety of mental health or substance use disorders. We specialise in the treatment of co-occurring disorders, so if your dissociation has caused you to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope, we can help you address and overcome these challenges.

A Mental Health Retreat in Thailand

Our clients benefit from a compassionate, accessible, and highly-trained professional team that have years of experience working with an international clientele. Located in beautiful northern Thailand, our resort-like facilities are well-appointed with private rooms, lush gardens, and amenities like a swimming pool, fitness centre, yoga and meditation studio.Licensed by the Thai Ministry of Health, and internationally accredited by the American Accreditation Commission International (AACI), The Dawn offers high-quality care at international standards.

Call The Dawn today to learn more about how we can help you reconnect with those you love and the world around you.

About the Author

John A. Smith is a Senior Psychotherapist at The Dawn and an internationally accredited Addiction Treatment Professional (ISSUP), Certified Life and NLP Coach. He is highly experienced in working with young adults and utilises a range of evidence-based therapies, including SMART Recovery, to help his clients achieve their goals.