What is dissociation? Is dissociative experience rare?
Have you ever got lost in a movie and are absorbed by it? You may not realise the persons sitting next to you in the cinema are crying or using their mobile phones. Have you ever felt numb immediately after being told some sad news, such as the passing of a loved ones? Have you had an experience that you have no idea that you are under high level of stress and only being able to realise it after the stressor had gone and you got sick? If you had some of these experiences in the past, you probably had mild dissociative experiences sometimes. In fact, researchers stated that dissociative experiences exist on a spectrum. For many of us without severe mental illnesses, it is common for us to have mild dissociative experiences sometimes. In the other end of the spectrum, people with severe mental illnesses, such as dissociative identity disorder, switch between different identities without having the conscious awareness of the switching sometimes. This type of extreme dissociative experiences are rarer and can be described as severe problematic mental condition.
In dissociation, people may have experience of their emotions, thoughts, memories are disconnected or keeping apart. These elements are supposed to be connected to the self are inaccessible to each other and to the rest of the self. In a more severe case, some parts of the self are disconnected and the dissociated self exert power to think and behave out of the conscious awareness of the whole self at the present moment. For most of us, it is common that we have different facets inside us and behave differently when our roles or the situations require us to show a particular facet of ourselves. For example, we sometimes witness a lady speaking and acting like a little girl when she is dating with her boyfriend. At workplace, this lady speaks and acts like a career woman with firm and strong tone of voice. In fact, this lady does not have dissociative identity disorder. She is only showing her different facets of self in different situations. In another instance, we sometimes hear people saying, “I don’t know why I act so aggressive and angry. This is not the usual me.” During the aggressive and angry episode, this person may not have full awareness of one’s emotions and behaviors. This is possible when this person is being triggered by someone treating him or her unfairly and the immediate reaction is to fight back and express one’s anger. These two examples may be mild dissociative experiences if their actions are not in full awareness of the self at the material time.
What causes dissociation in the more severe end of the spectrum? One of the possible causes indicated by research is trauma. To define trauma, we need to understand that there are different types of trauma. In fact, the key of a traumatice experience is that the well-being and the functioning of the person are affected. According to some psychologists specializing in studying and treating dissociations, trauma is not an event. It is about how one processes the event. If the person cannot integrate the whole experience during a particular traumatic event, some parts of the experiences may be discconected with other parts. This may cause the person to experience dissociation in the future. For instance, a victim of rape may be dissociated when she smelled a perfume similar to her rapiest’s during a social networking event. She may suddenly feel extremely anxious without knowing the underlying reasons. It is because the rape experience of this lady was very traumatic and this made her having difficulty to process all the emotions, thoughts and other somatic reactions. This may cause her to have difficulty to integrate all of these elements in the experience. As a result, the smell of the perfume used by the rapist is disconnected with the rape experience. The similar smell of the perfume can activite her reactions, but she had no idea why she is being activated or she even did not know she was being triggered by the smell of this particular perfume.
Apart from the more severe dissociative experiences of those who are wounded by traumas, dissociation in our daily life is normal and useful. We sometimes need this to stay focus for our activities that require deep concentration. If you or someone that you know experience the more severe dissociative experiences, it is important to seek professional help.