Julie Miller's Mental Health Blog

“D” is for Dissociation

Posted on: March 8, 2010

I often hear clients say, “Oh, yeah, I dissociate myself all the time.”  When I ask what that means to them, they talk about “dissociating” themselves from other individuals whom they don’t like, or isolating from family and friends.

That makes sense in the way the word is used in the vernacular; however, it doesn’t really reflect what is meant in the mental health field by the term “dissociation.”

The DSM defines dissociation as “a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment.”

Basically, to translate from the DSM, dissociation is a way in which we experience alteration in our perceptions of the world and ourselves, including who we are, where we are, what date or year it is, and how present we feel in the moment.

Think of it as a protective device – this may sound silly, but maybe even a “cloaking device.”  Remember the Star Trek episodes, especially with the Romulans, who had a cloaking device but the good guys didn’t?  The cloaking device was used by the Romulans to be invisible to Capt. Kirk and his ship.  The Romulans wanted to hide, right?  Capt. Kirk was the enemy, a threat.  The Romulans were in there, but they couldn’t be perceived by the Capt.

We can use dissociation like a defense, to hide from our emotions or sensations that are “a threat,” meaning that they are such uncomfortable experiences for us that we have to shut them off immediately.  You might see a connection here to substance abuse – an immediate shut-off valve.

So when Capt. Kirk (aka, “unwelcome feelings or sensations”) approaches the Romulans, and the Romulans are not in a friendly, open mood to accepting him, the cloaking device (aka “dissociation”) goes up.

The particular forms of that cloaking device vary, and are on a long continuum that starts with where most of us are – the occasional day dream, a little mini mental vacation, not remembering getting from one stop light to the next, but doing so safely.  These are pretty much within normal limits, and most of us experience this kind of dissociation at one time or another.

As we move up the dissociative continuum, the alterations in perceptions, identity, consciousness and memory increases and becomes more problematic. It continues to be a defense, however, against emotions or sensations the individual experiences.

Next time, specific examples of dissociation…

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