What is dissociation?

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Dissociation is a mechanism that allows the mind to separate or compartmentalise certain memories or thoughts from normal consciousness. These split-off mental contents are not erased. They may resurface spontaneously or be triggered by objects or events in the person’s environment.

Dissociation is a process that occurs along a spectrum of severity. If someone experiences dissociation, it does not necessarily mean that that person has a dissociative disorder or other mental illness. A mild degree of dissociation occurs with some physical stressors; people who have gone without sleep for a long period of time, have had “laughing gas” for dental surgery, or have been in a minor accident often have brief dissociative experiences. Another commonplace example of dissociation is a person becoming involved in a book or movie so completely that the surroundings or the passage of time are not noticed. Another example might be driving on the highway and taking several exits without noticing or remembering. Dissociation is related to hypnosis in that hypnotic trance also involves a temporarily altered state of consciousness. Most patients with dissociative disorders are highly hypnotisable.

People in other cultures sometimes have dissociative experiences in the course of religious (in certain trance states) or other group activities.

Moderate or severe forms of dissociation are caused by such traumatic experiences as childhood abuse , combat, criminal attacks, brainwashing in hostage situations, or involvement in a natural or transportation disaster. Patients with acute stress disorder , post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), conversion disorder, or somatisation disorder may develop dissociative symptoms. Recent studies of trauma indicate that the human brain stores traumatic memories in a different way than that of normal memories. Traumatic memories are not processed or integrated into a person’s ongoing life in the same fashion as normal memories. Instead they are dissociated, or “split off,” and may erupt into consciousness from time to time without warning. Over a period of time, these two sets of memories, the normal and the traumatic, may coexist as parallel sets without being combined or blended. In extreme cases, different sets of dissociated memories may cause people to develop separate personalities for these memories – a disorder known as dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder).

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One Response to “What is dissociation?”

  1. Forms of dissociative disorder « Shadowlight's Blog Says:

    […] Dissociation is a mental process, which produces a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity. During the period of time when a person is dissociating, certain information is not associated with other information as it normally would be. For example, during a traumatic experience, a person may dissociate the memory of the place and circumstances of the trauma from his ongoing memory, resulting in a temporary mental escape from the fear and pain of the trauma and, in some cases, a memory gap surrounding the experience. Because this process can produce changes in memory, people who frequently dissociate often find their senses of personal history and identity are affected. […]


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