Dissociation is a common coping mechanism that is meant to help us deal with undesirable events from traumatic experiences to boredom. It is a feeling of detachment from your current reality, as though your brain is denying the situation you’re in. This happens for the same reason doctors and dentists use drugs to numb patients or put them to sleep for painful procedures such as surgery; we are essentially “numbing” the pain we would normally be experiencing if we were not dissociating. While this can be a helpful way to get over unbearable moments, it is also possible to utilize this consciously and create a habit out of it. Dissociating regularly or routinely to specific events in our lives can put us into bad situations or have other serious long-term consequences. Lucky, those of us who struggle with dissociation and find that it is preventing us from breaking free can learn to break the habit and handle our problems in a healthier way.

We tend to dissociate when we cannot or do not want to deal with something we are experiencing. Perhaps you are in a waiting room without anything to distract yourself with and you want the time to go by faster; you might dissociate by daydreaming you are somewhere else. This could also be something that occurs regularly, such as coming from a dysfunctional or even violent home and needing to “tune out” when things get bad.

Challenges Faced By Dissociation

Some of us with dissociation might also experience depersonalization, which feels like an out-of-body experience that increases anxiety. We may not recognize ourselves and feel completely out of place. It is also possible to experience the feeling that the world itself is unreal. It is also possible to develop acute to chromic amnesia. The more traumatizing the experience, the more we will dissociate ourselves from it.

We can teach ourselves to consciously dissociate, and many of us do this as a way of “dealing” with our problems—as though denying the problem’s existence. For example, many people in abusive relationships dissociate when their partners are mean or violent towards them. This makes it easier to forgive an abuser and continue to survive in the relationship. Those who dissociate on a regular basis have a tendency to only see the good parts of their lives while ignoring the bad, thus skewing their sense of reality. It is good to be positive, but the longer we ignore a problem, the worse it gets. For example, the longer a victim stays with their abuser, the more likely they will end up being hospitalized for severe injuries. We may also dissociate so often that we do not know how to stop when we try to, and instead lash out in the form of extreme emotion at seemingly random moments.

Over time, dissociation also has the potential to harm us in the forms of low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, drug abuse, self-mutilation, and even suicidal thoughts.

How Dissociation Affects Other Relationships

Dissociating ourselves from the world around us can negatively affect our relationships with other people in many different ways. A common characteristic of people who have been sexually abused is to dissociate themselves during intimate moments, which they might do with their current partners long after the sexual abuse has taken place. For every way someone can be traumatized, there is a way it can affect someone close to them. If you dissociate during social situations due to a past of public humiliation or general embarrassment, you might teach yourself to dissociate every time you are in a social setting. This could prevent you from having a good time and really getting into the experience, even if you are with close friends. Other people might notice your lack of enthusiasm over time and come to the conclusion that you are not a fun person to be around. Human connections can be severed because you are never truly in the moment, since relaying our emotions (if any) to them time and time again can form a vicious cycle that may not break any other way.

How Therapy Can Help

Therapists can help us conquer every aspect of our dissociation that prevents us from moving forward. The goal is never to get rid of dissociation completely, because it is a very useful survivor tactic that can help us in threatening occurrences. A therapist can teach us more about dissociation and help us recognize when in our lives we dissociate, as many of us do not even realize how often we do it. Once we are able to identify these instances, we can learn how to keep ourselves in a present state of mind. We can also learn to grow and find meaning within the things that we are dissociating from. There are plenty of different techniques we can use to channel our emotional problems in different, healthier ways.

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