The term “dissociation” refers to a situation whereby someone becomes detached from the things that are going on around them, and sometimes even from physical and emotional experiences. They feel as though reality is going on around them, and that they are not taking part in it. Sometimes, these feelings can develop in response to trauma, stress, conflict or even boredom, as a way of dealing with the unwelcome sensations or feelings. At the milder end of the spectrum, we’ve probably all had the experience of feeling a little dissociated from our surroundings, at least for a while.
Problems can emerge when someone spends a lot of time in a dissociated state, or when the condition because so severe that they develop a dissociative disorder. In this situation, they might start to experience a loss of identity, problems with memory, or difficulty in understanding what is real and what might not be. People sometimes feel as though they are observing themselves “from outside” or become immersed in imaging themselves somewhere else, even when important things are actually happening all around them. They might behave impulsively without really engaging with reality. All of this can make it hard to forge and maintain important relationships, to work and to engage with others.
We don’t always know exactly why some people experience dissociation, but it is often associated with a trauma in the past and is a way of blocking strong, unwelcome emotions.
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)
When the problem is very bad, it is known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). People with this problem are often misunderstood, partly because the condition used to be known as Multiple Personality Disorder, and has often been portrayed in films and literature in a sensationalist and highly inaccurate way. DID is hard to diagnose, but is generally understood to be a possibility when someone experiences at least two distinct personality states. While nobody knows for sure why some people develop DID, there is a strong statistical correlation with having suffered abuse – physical or sexual – in childhood. Suffers often also have a range of other problems, such as depression and anxiety. Because true DID is relatively rare, and tricky to pin down, most psychologists and psychiatrists would be very careful before proposing it as a diagnosis.