Dissociation is a normal part of the human experience. Road hypnosis, where you travel distances without remembering doing it, and hyper-focusing on a movie in a theater are only two examples.
One of the most well-known characteristics of dissociative identity disorder (DID) is dissociation. The things people living with DID experience while dissociated vary from person to person, but always the issues that arise are involuntary because an alter has taken over.
This article will examine unhealthy dissociation, when it might begin, what causes it, and ways to mitigate its influence over you.
Unhealthy Dissociation in a Nutshell
Dissociation is a way to handle boring or frightening situations by splitting off what is happening to a person from the waking self. As stated above, all people dissociate. Dissociation is an evolutionary adaptation that served us well when approached by predators before we became wholly human.
However, sometimes dissociation takes over one’s life, leaving one confused and frightened of what will happen next. A good deal of mental health disorders have a dissociative component, but dissociative identity disorder is by far the issue that most people think of when studying dissociation.
Dissociative identity disorder is a mental health challenge that forms in childhood, usually before 5-7 years after severe and repeated child abuse. People who live with DID have personalities that did not congeal into one personality because of a missed vital part of the formation of their personality.
People with dissociative identity disorder experience unhealthy dissociation as they push horrific memories of highly adverse and traumatic events to the back of their minds and split them off with amnesic barriers.
The Root Causes of Unhealthy Dissociation
While specific drugs and hypnosis can cause unhealthy dissociation, trauma is by far the leading cause. Traumas such as
Repeated sexual and physical assault
Other forms of chronic child abuse
Unpredictable or frightening family environments
When traumatized, a child will disconnect from the moment to minimize the full impact of the trauma. Dissociation is a way to hide away from the unbearable and unspeakable.
Unpredictable or frightening family environments may also cause the disconnection of a child from reality during traumatic events. The severity of the dissociative disorder is directly correlated to the extent and severity of the childhood trauma these kids endure.
Dissociative identity disorder is at the most severe end of the spectrum of dissociative disorders. With this disorder, people experience a loss of sense of self and a lack of a cohesive personality.
People living with dissociative identity disorder often are triggered into unhealthy dissociation, even causing fugue described as going places without a plan, remembrance, or in some cases, money. These fugue states can last for anywhere from hours to days or weeks.
Dissociation Often Causes Fear
As one can imagine, unhealthy dissociation is a series of events that leaves the person living with DID confused and afraid. Especially when an alter has taken over, people in the DID community fear doing or saying something that can land them in trouble or harm someone else.
Not that people with DID the diagnosis are dangerous to others; in fact, no matter what the media would have people believe, they are more dangerous to themselves.
The fear of not knowing is frightening to anyone, whether or not they have dissociative identity disorder. But when you know you are prone to “becoming” someone else, you can never know whether you have been appropriate in high-stress situations.
The Dangers of Unhealthy Dissociation
Unfortunately, a few of my friends who struggled with the issues surrounding DID had died by suicide. I almost died by suicide while dissociated into an alter who is always suicidal but who was responding to deep depression and anxiety. I am fortunate to be alive.
Other dangers faced while unhealthily dissociated might include:
Having unprotected sex
Spending money you don’t have
Finding clothes you did not buy
Severe emotional dysregulation
Loss of friends
It may look on the surface that these dangers are not horrible, but they are. Living in a world where you never know what you will say next or if you will form a relationship you do not want is incredibly scary.
Ways to Mitigate the Fear and Danger of Unhealthy Dissociation
When a person with dissociative identity disorder is dissociated, they are not aware of what is happening. For his reason, the person needs an outside force, such as a therapist, to help them learn how to ground themselves.
Grounding means reconnecting to the here and now. There are several ways to accomplish this. Grounding in therapy may include the therapist firmly getting one’s attention by making eye contact, calling out the person’s name, or snapping their fingers.
Other methods include the therapist asking, when you have spaced out, “where did you go?” or asking you where you are and when.
However, when you are not in a professional’s office, grounding is the most important. These grounding techniques keep you connected, and practice will help you have more control over triggers.
Below are only a few ways I will share that I used to ground myself in the present when I am triggered and want to dissociate.
Deep breathing. Taking deep breaths through my nose and exhaling out through my mouth calms my overstimulated nervous system.
Listening to the sounds all around you. Using your senses to orient yourself is a significant way to ground yourself. Listening to the movement of the trees, the sound of coffee brewing, or any sound in your environment will help you return to your body and a sense of the here and now.
Wrap yourself in a blanket. The main reason for dissociation is feeling unsafe in your environment. One way to combat that feeling is to wrap yourself up in a warm and cozy blanket. Immediately, you will feel relief as you hide within the folds of the blanket as it calms and soothes you. A weighted blanket is perfect for this.
Utilize your other senses. Touching, looking at, or sniffing something in your environment that brings you pleasure in the here and now can remind you where you are and when.
Ending Our Time Together
While there is a healthy form of dissociation, it is unhealthy if it interferes with your life or causes you distress. Unhealthy dissociation involves losing control over one’s sense of self and where you are in the world.
There are many dangers involved in unhealthy dissociation. One is hurting yourself or someone else. I woke up married after a bout of unhealthy dissociation into an alter who was determined to start a family. It hurt that man terribly when I divorced him as he didn’t understand what had happened.
Unhealthy dissociation, while a pain, is conquerable with the practice of grounding techniques and professional counseling.
“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.” – Judith Lewis Herman
The process of dissociation is an elegant mechanism built into the human psychological system as a form of escape from (sometimes literally) going crazy. The problem with checking out so thoroughly is that it can leave us feeling dead inside, with little or no ability to feel our feelings in our bodies. The process of repair demands a re-association with the body, a commitment to dive into the body and feel today what we couldn’t feel yesterday because it was too dangerous.” – Alexandra Katehakis