Breaking Down Mental Health Terms: What is Dissociation?

When I write or talk about mental health, I can sometimes get too into the weeds and not properly explain some of the terms or definitions of some of the words I use. Language is extremely important to me in the way we talk about mental health, and clearly defining what certain terms mean (as well as their context) can be helpful to how we talk about mental health in the long run. That being said, I’ve decided to start breaking down some of these terms that could be more helpful to understand, and the first term I’ll be breaking down is dissociation.

What is Dissociation?

At a basic level, dissociation is a concept that affects the way your brain processes information. It is a disconnection between the many things that go on in a person’s brain, including thoughts, feelings, memories, and emotions. Per, Very Well Mind,

Dissociation is a disconnection between a person’s memories, feelings, behaviors, perceptions, and/or sense of self. This disconnection is automatic and completely out of the person’s control. It’s often described as an “out of body” experience.

Very Well Mind

So what does that mean, exactly? Well, like most other parts of mental health, there is a spectrum for how often dissociation occurs and how severe it can be. At it’s mildest, dissociation is like daydreaming, or other times during the day when your mind wanders. More severe dissociation gets in the way of how people function, which is why it can appear as a symptom in mental health disorders, and long, recurring episodes of dissociation could also be connected to dissociative disorders.

What Does Dissociation Look Like?

While the term dissociation might seem unfamiliar, there are several other words that people use that are connected to, or symptoms of, dissociation. For instance, depersonalization (feeling disconnected from your body or your thoughts) is a common symptom of dissociation, and one people discuss often. Derealization, identity alteration, and amnesia are a few other symptoms of dissociation, all of which have to do with feeling disconnected from yourself or from the world around you.

Another important thing to know about dissociation is that can appear as an aspect of other mental health conditions including anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders and more. While dissociation can happen to someone experiencing depression and anxiety, this would be different than dissociative disorders, which are dissociative episodes that are long-lasting and recurring.

What Are Dissociative Disorders?

People who live with certain mental health conditions can experience dissociation from time to time, but dissociate disorders are also something to be aware of when it comes to dissociation. Dissociative disorders are often discussed when dissociation happens on a recurring basis or when episodes last long lengths of time, and there are three common types of dissociative disorders.

  • Dissociative identity disorder
  • Dissociative amnesia
  • Depersonalization/derealization disorder

You can read about all three of these on the American Psychiatric Association’s website (link here!), but the main point here is that dissociation is a wide spectrum that can range from harmless to harmful – just like many other mental health conditions.

What to Remember

At its core, dissociation is a disconnect between a person’s memories, feelings, perceptions, and behaviors, and this disconnect can impact the way we see the world. However, there are many other words/terms that people use to describe aspects of dissociation, and one of the ways that we can acknowledge and support people who are experiencing this is naming dissociation for what it is and understanding what that means. Just like other mental health terms, when we can name and define our struggles, they can become a little less scary to live with.

Now, over to my readers! How much did you know about dissociation before reading this post? Do you agree that people might refer to dissociation often, but use different words? Let me know in the comments!


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