Dissociation (psychology)

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Specialty Psychiatry

Dissociation, as a concept that has been developed over time, is any of a wide array of experiences, ranging from a mild emotional detachment from the immediate surroundings, to a more severe disconnection from physical and emotional experiences. The major characteristic of all dissociative phenomena involves a detachment from reality, rather than a loss of reality as in psychosis. [1] [2] [3] [4]


The phenomena are diagnosable under the DSM-5 as a group of disorders as well as a symptom of other disorders through various diagnostic tools. [5] [6] Its cause is believed to be related to neurobiological mechanisms, trauma, anxiety, and psychoactive drugs. Research has further related it to suggestibility, hypnosis, and it is inversely related to mindfulness, which is a potential treatment.


French philosopher and psychologist Pierre Janet (1859–1947) is considered to be the author of the concept of dissociation. [7] Contrary to some conceptions of dissociation, Janet did not believe that dissociation was a psychological defense. [8] [9]

Psychological defense mechanisms belong to Freud's theory of psychoanalysis, not to Janetian psychology. Janet claimed that dissociation occurred only in persons who had a constitutional weakness of mental functioning that led to hysteria when they were stressed. Although it is true that many of Janet's case histories described traumatic experiences, he never considered dissociation to be a defense against those experiences. Quite the opposite: Janet insisted that dissociation was a mental or cognitive deficit. Accordingly, he considered trauma to be one of many stressors that could worsen the already-impaired "mental deficiency" of a hysteric, thereby generating a cascade of hysterical (in today's language, "dissociative") symptoms. [7] [10] [11] [12]

Although there was great interest in dissociation during the last two decades of the nineteenth century (especially in France and England), this interest rapidly waned with the coming of the new century. [7] Even Janet largely turned his attention to other matters.

There was a sharp peak in interest in dissociation in America from 1890 to 1910, especially in Boston as reflected in the work of William James, Boris Sidis, Morton Prince, and William McDougall. Nevertheless, even in America, interest in dissociation rapidly succumbed to the surging academic interest in psychoanalysis and behaviorism.

For most of the twentieth century, there was little interest in dissociation. Despite this, a review of 76 previously published cases from the 1790s to 1942 was published in 1944, describing clinical phenomena consistent with that seen by Janet and by therapists today. [13] In 1971, Bowers and her colleagues [14] presented a detailed, and still quite valid, treatment article. The authors of this article included leading thinkers of their time – John G. Watkins (who developed ego-state therapy) and Zygmunt A. Piotrowski (famed for his work on the Rorschach test). Further interest in dissociation was evoked when Ernest Hilgard (1977) published his neodissociation theory in the 1970s. During the 1970s and 1980s an increasing number of clinicians and researchers wrote about dissociation, particularly multiple personality disorder. [15]

Carl Jung described pathological manifestations of dissociation as special or extreme cases of the normal operation of the psyche. This structural dissociation, opposing tension, and hierarchy of basic attitudes and functions in normal individual consciousness is the basis of Jung's Psychological Types . [16] He theorized that dissociation is a natural necessity for consciousness to operate in one faculty unhampered by the demands of its opposite.

Attention to dissociation as a clinical feature has been growing in recent years as knowledge of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increased, due to interest in dissociative identity disorder (DID), and as neuroimaging research and population studies show its relevance. [17]

Historically the psychopathological concept of dissociation has also another different root: the conceptualization of Eugen Bleuler that looks into dissociation related to schizophrenia. [18]


Dissociation is commonly displayed on a continuum. [19] In mild cases, dissociation can be regarded as a coping mechanism or defense mechanism in seeking to master, minimize or tolerate stress – including boredom or conflict. [20] [21] [22] At the non-pathological end of the continuum, dissociation describes common events such as daydreaming. Further along the continuum are non-pathological altered states of consciousness. [19] [23] [24]

More pathological dissociation involves dissociative disorders, including dissociative fugue and depersonalization disorder with or without alterations in personal identity or sense of self. These alterations can include: a sense that self or the world is unreal (depersonalization and derealization), a loss of memory (amnesia), forgetting identity or assuming a new self (fugue), and separate streams of consciousness, identity and self (dissociative identity disorder, formerly termed multiple personality disorder) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. [25] [26] Although some dissociative disruptions involve amnesia, other dissociative events do not. [27] Dissociative disorders are typically experienced as startling, autonomous intrusions into the person's usual ways of responding or functioning. Due to their unexpected and largely inexplicable nature, they tend to be quite unsettling.

Dissociative disorders are sometimes triggered by trauma, but may be preceded only by stress, psychoactive substances, or no identifiable trigger at all. [28] The ICD-10 classifies conversion disorder as a dissociative disorder. [19] The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders groups all dissociative disorders into a single category and recognizes dissociation as a symptom of acute stress disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder. [29]

Misdiagnosis is common among people who display symptoms of dissociative disorders, with an average of seven years to receive proper diagnosis and treatment. Research is ongoing into etiologies, symptomology, and valid and reliable diagnostic tools. [6] In the general population, dissociative experiences that are not clinically significant are highly prevalent with 60% to 65% of the respondents indicating that they have had some dissociative experiences. [30]

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

Diagnoses listed under the DSM-5 are dissociative identity disorder, dissociative amnesia, depersonalization/derealization disorder, other specified dissociative disorder and unspecified dissociative disorder. The list of available dissociative disorders listed in the DSM-5 changed from the DSM-IV-TR, as the authors removed the diagnosis of dissociative fugue, classifying it instead as a subtype of dissociative amnesia. Furthermore, the authors recognized derealization on the same diagnostic level of depersonalization with the opportunity of differentiating between the two. [5] [31]

The DSM-IV-TR considers symptoms such as depersonalization, derealization and psychogenic amnesia to be core features of dissociative disorders. [5] The DSM-5 carried these symptoms over and described symptoms as positive and negative. Positive symptoms include unwanted intrusions that alter continuity of subjective experiences, which account for the first two symptoms listed earlier with the addition of fragmentation of identity. Negative symptoms include loss of access to information and mental functions that are normally readily accessible, which describes amnesia. [5] [31]

Peritraumatic dissociation

Peritraumatic dissociation is considered to be dissociation that is experienced during and immediately following a traumatic event. [32] [33] [34] Research is on-going related to its development, its importance, and its relationship to trauma, dissociative disorders, and predicting the development of PTSD. [32] [33] [35] [34]


Two of the most commonly used screening tools in the community are the Dissociative Experiences Scale and the Multiscale Dissociation Inventory. [36] [37] [6] Meanwhile, the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV – Dissociative Disorders (SCID-D) and its second iteration, the SCID-D-R, are both semi-structured interviews and are considered psychometrically strong diagnostic tools. [38] [6]

Other tools include the Office Mental Status Examination (OMSE), [39] which is used clinically due to inherent subjectivity and lack of quantitative use. [6] There is also the Dissociative Disorders Interview Schedule (DDSI), which lacks substantive clarity for differential diagnostics. [6]

Peritraumatic dissociation is measured through the Peritraumatic Dissociative Scale. [40] [33]


Neurobiological mechanism

Preliminary research suggests that dissociation-inducing events and drugs like ketamine and seizures generate slow rhythmic activity (1-3 Hz) in layer 5 neurons of the posteromedial cortex in humans (retrosplenial cortex in mice). These slow oscillations disconnect other brain regions from interacting with the posteromedial cortex, which may explain the overall experience of dissociation. [41]


Dissociation has been described as one of a constellation of symptoms experienced by some victims of multiple forms of childhood trauma, including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. [42] [43] This is supported by studies which suggest that dissociation is correlated with a history of trauma. [44]

Dissociation appears to have a high specificity and a low sensitivity to having a self-reported history of trauma, which means that dissociation is much more common among those who are traumatized, yet at the same time there are many people who have suffered from trauma but who do not show dissociative symptoms. [45]

Adult dissociation when combined with a history of child abuse and otherwise interpersonal violence-related posttraumatic stress disorder has been shown to contribute to disturbances in parenting behavior, such as exposure of young children to violent media. Such behavior may contribute to cycles of familial violence and trauma. [46]

Symptoms of dissociation resulting from trauma may include depersonalization, psychological numbing, disengagement, or amnesia regarding the events of the abuse. It has been hypothesized that dissociation may provide a temporarily effective defense mechanism in cases of severe trauma; however, in the long term, dissociation is associated with decreased psychological functioning and adjustment. [43]

Other symptoms sometimes found along with dissociation in victims of traumatic abuse (often referred to as "sequelae to abuse") include anxiety, PTSD, low self-esteem, somatization, depression, chronic pain, interpersonal dysfunction, substance abuse, self-harm and suicidal ideation or actions. [42] [43] [47] These symptoms may lead the victim to present the symptoms as the source of the problem. [42]

Child abuse, especially chronic abuse starting at early ages, has been related to high levels of dissociative symptoms in a clinical sample, [48] including amnesia for abuse memories. [49] It has also been seen that girls who suffered abuse during their childhood had higher reported dissociation scores than did boys who reported dissociation during their childhood. [50] A non-clinical sample of adult women linked increased levels of dissociation to sexual abuse by a significantly older person prior to age 15, [51] and dissociation has also been correlated with a history of childhood physical and sexual abuse. [52] When sexual abuse is examined, the levels of dissociation were found to increase along with the severity of the abuse. [53]

A 2012 review article supports the hypothesis that current or recent trauma may affect an individual's assessment of the more distant past, changing the experience of the past and resulting in dissociative states. [54]

Psychoactive substances

Psychoactive drugs can often induce a state of temporary dissociation. Substances with dissociative properties include ketamine, nitrous oxide, alcohol, tiletamine, amphetamine, dextromethorphan, MK-801, PCP, methoxetamine, salvia, muscimol, atropine, ibogaine, and minocycline. [55]


Hypnosis and suggestibility

There is evidence to suggest that dissociation is correlated with hypnotic suggestibility, specifically with dissociative symptoms related to trauma. However, the relationship between dissociation and hypnotic suggestibility appears to be complex and indicates further research is necessary. [56] [57]

Aspects of hypnosis include absorption, dissociation, suggestibility, and willingness to receive behavioral instruction from others. [58] Both hypnotic suggestibility and dissociation tend to be less mindful, and hypnosis is used as a treatment modality for dissociation, anxiety, chronic pain, trauma, and more. [58] [59] Difference between hypnosis and dissociation: one is suggested, imposed by self or other, meaning dissociation is generally more spontaneous altering of awareness. [60]

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness and meditation have shown an inverse relationship specifically with dissociation related to re-experiencing trauma due to the lack of present awareness inherent with dissociation. [32] [34] The re-experiencing episodes can include anything between illusions, distortions in perceived reality, and disconnectedness from the present moment. [32] [34] It is believed that the nature of dissociation as an avoidance coping or defense mechanism related to trauma inhibits resolution and integration. [34]

Mindfulness and meditation also can alter the state of awareness to the present moment; however, unlike dissociation, it is clinically used to bring greater awareness to an individual’s present state of being. It achieves this through increased abilities to self-regulate attention, emotion, and physiological arousal, maintain continuity of consciousness, and adopt an approach to the present experience that is open and curious. [34] In practice, non-judgmental awareness has displayed a positive relationship with lower symptoms of PTSD avoidance, which can relate to greater opportunities for success with exposure therapy and lowering PTSD symptoms of hypervigilance, re-experiencing, and overgeneralization of fears. [61] [34]

When using mindfulness and meditation with people expressing trauma symptoms, it is crucial to be aware of potential trauma triggers, such as the focus on the breath. Often, a meditation session will begin with focused attention and move into open monitoring. With severe trauma symptoms, it may be important to start the meditation training and an individual session at the peripheral awareness, such as the limbs. [34] Moreover, trauma survivors often report feeling numb as a protection against trauma triggers and reminders, which are often painful, making it good practice to start all trainings at the limbs as a gradual exposure to body sensations. Doing so will also increase physical attachment to the present moment and the sense of grounding, thereby increasing tolerance to trauma reminders and decreasing the need and use of dissociation. [34]


When receiving treatment, patients are assessed to discover their level of functioning. Some patients might be higher functioning than others. This is taken into account when creating a patient's potential treatment targets. To start off treatment, time is dedicated to increasing a patient's mental level and adaptive actions in order to gain a balance in both their mental and behavioral action. Once this is achieved, the next goal is to work on removing or minimizing the phobia made by traumatic memories, which is causing the patient to dissociate. The final step of treatment includes helping patients work through their grief in order to move forward and be able to engage in their own lives. This is done with the use of new coping skills attained through treatment. [62] One coping skill that can improve dissociation is mindfulness due to the introduction of staying in present awareness while observing non-judgmentally and increasing the ability to regulate emotions. [63] Specifically in adolescents, mindfulness has been shown to reduce dissociation after practicing mindfulness for three weeks. [64]

See also

Related Research Articles

Dissociative identity disorder Mental illness characterized by alternating between multiple personality states and memory loss

Dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder (MPD), is a mental disorder characterized by the maintenance of at least two distinct and relatively enduring personality states. The disorder is accompanied by memory gaps beyond what would be explained by ordinary forgetfulness. The personality states alternately show in a person's behavior; however, presentations of the disorder vary. Other conditions that often occur in people with DID include post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders, depression, substance use disorders, conversion disorder, somatic symptom disorder, eating disorders, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and sleep disorders. Self-harm, non-epileptic seizures, flashbacks with amnesia for content of flashbacks, anxiety disorders, and suicidality are also common.

Post-traumatic stress disorder mental disorder that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying or life-threatening event

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that can develop because of exposure to a traumatic event, such as sexual assault, warfare, traffic collisions, child abuse, domestic violence or other threats on a person's life. Symptoms may include disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the events, mental or physical distress to trauma-related cues, attempts to avoid trauma-related cues, alterations in the way a person thinks and feels, and an increase in the fight-or-flight response. These symptoms last for more than a month after the event. Young children are less likely to show distress, but instead may express their memories through play. A person with PTSD is at a higher risk of suicide and intentional self-harm.

Depersonalization can consist of a detachment within the self, regarding one's mind or body, or being a detached observer of oneself. Subjects feel they have changed and that the world has become vague, dreamlike, less real, lacking in significance or being outside reality while looking in. Chronic depersonalization refers to depersonalization/derealization disorder, which is classified by the DSM-5 as a dissociative disorder, based on the findings that depersonalization and derealization are prevalent in other dissociative disorders including dissociative identity disorder.

Repressed memory is a controversial, and largely scientifically discredited, claim that memories for traumatic events may be stored in the unconscious mind and blocked from normal conscious recall. As originally postulated by Sigmund Freud, repressed memory theory claims that although an individual may be unable to recall the memory, it may still affect the individual through subconscious influences on behavior and emotional responding.

Psychological trauma is damage to a person's mind as a result of one or more events that cause overwhelming amounts of stress that exceed the person's ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved, eventually leading to serious, long-term negative consequences. Trauma is not the same as mental distress.

Depersonalization-derealization disorder Human mental dissociative disorder

Depersonalization-derealization disorder is a mental disorder in which the person has persistent or recurrent feelings of depersonalization or derealization. Depersonalization is described as feeling disconnected or detached from one's self. Individuals may report feeling as if they are an outside observer of their own thoughts or body, and often report feeling a loss of control over their thoughts or actions. Derealization is described as detachment from one's surroundings. Individuals experiencing derealization may report perceiving the world around them as foggy, dreamlike/surreal, or visually distorted.

Acute stress disorder is a psychological response to a terrifying, traumatic, or surprising experience. Acute stress disorder is not fatal, but it may bring about delayed stress reactions if not correctly addressed.

Dissociative disorders (DD) are conditions that involve disruptions or breakdowns of memory, awareness, identity, or perception. People with dissociative disorders use dissociation as a defense mechanism, pathologically and involuntarily. The individual suffers these dissociations to protect themselves. Some dissociative disorders are triggered by psychological trauma, but depersonalization-derealization disorder may be preceded only by stress, psychoactive substances, or no identifiable trigger at all.

In psychology, emotional detachment, also known as emotional blunting, has two meanings: one is the inability to connect to others on an emotional level; the other is as a positive means of coping with anxiety. This coping strategy, also known as emotion focused-coping, is used by avoiding certain situations that might trigger anxiety. It refers to the evasion of emotional connections. Emotional detachment may be a temporary reaction to a stressful situation, or a chronic condition such as depersonalization-derealization disorder. It may also be caused by certain antidepressants. Emotional blunting as reduced affect display is one of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia.

Psychogenic amnesia or dissociative amnesia is a memory disorder characterized by sudden retrograde episodic memory loss, said to occur for a period of time ranging from hours to years. More recently, "dissociative amnesia" has been defined as a dissociative disorder "characterized by retrospectively reported memory gaps. These gaps involve an inability to recall personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature." In a change from the DSM-IV to the DSM-5, dissociative fugue is now subsumed under dissociative amnesia.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychological disorder that can develop in response to prolonged, repeated experience of interpersonal trauma in a context in which the individual has little or no chance of escape. C-PTSD relates to the trauma model of mental disorders and is associated with chronic sexual, psychological, and physical abuse or neglect, chronic intimate partner violence, victims of prolonged workplace or school bullying, victims of kidnapping and hostage situations, indentured servants, victims of slavery and human trafficking, sweatshop workers, prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors, residential school survivors, prisoners kept in solitary confinement for a long period of time, and defectors from authoritarian religions. It is most often directed at children and emotionally vulnerable adults, and whilst motivations behind such abuse vary, though mostly being predominantly malicious, it has also been shown that the motivations behind such abuse can be well-intentioned. Situations involving captivity/entrapment can lead to C-PTSD-like symptoms, which can include prolonged feelings of terror, worthlessness, helplessness, and deformation of one's identity and sense of self.

Traumatic stress is a common term for reactive anxiety and depression, although it is not a medical term and is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The experience of traumatic stress include subtypes of anxiety, depression and disturbance of conduct along with combinations of these symptoms. This may result from events that are less threatening and distressing than those that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. The fifth edition of the DSM describes in a section titled "Trauma and Stress-Related Disorders" disinhibited social engagement disorder, reactive attachment disorder, acute stress disorder, adjustment disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Derealization is an alteration in the perception of the external world, causing sufferers to perceive it as unreal, distant, distorted or falsified. Other symptoms include feeling as though one's environment is lacking in spontaneity, emotional coloring, and depth. It is a dissociative symptom that may appear in moments of severe stress.

Other specified dissociative disorder (OSDD) is a mental health diagnosis for pathological dissociation that matches the DSM-5 criteria for a dissociative disorder, but does not fit the full criteria for any of the specifically identified subtypes, which include dissociative identity disorder, dissociative amnesia, and depersonalization/derealization disorder, and the reasons why the previous diagnoses were not met are specified. "Unspecified dissociative disorder" is given when the clinician does not give a reason. The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) refers to the diagnosis as "Other dissociative and conversion disorders". Under the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), it was known as "Dissociative disorder not otherwise specified" (DDNOS).

Childbirth-related post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychological disorder that can develop in women who have recently given birth. Its symptoms are not distinct from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The potential Genetic influences of post-traumatic stress disorder are ill understood due to the limitations of any genetic study of mental illness; in that it cannot be ethically induced in selected groups. So all studies must use naturally occurring groups with genetic similarities and difference, thus the amount of data is limited. However, Genetics play some role in the development of PTSD. Approximately 30% of the variance in PTSD is caused from genetics alone. For twin pairs exposed to combat in Vietnam, having a monozygotic (identical) twin with PTSD was associated with an increased risk of the co-twin's having PTSD compared to twins that were dizygotic.

The University of California at Los Angeles Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Reaction Index for DSM-5 is a psychiatric assessment tool used to assess symptoms of PTSD in children, adolescents, and young adults. This assessment battery includes four measures: the Child/Adolescent Self-Report version; the Parent/Caregiver Report version; the Parent/Caregiver Report version for Children Age 6 and Younger; and a Brief Screen for Trauma and PTSD. Questions may differ among the indexes depending on the target age, however the indexes are identical in format. The target age groups for this assessment are children, adolescents, and young adults between 7-18 and children age 6 and younger. Versions of the UCLA PTSD Reaction Index for DSM-5 have been translated into many languages, including Spanish, Japanese, Simplified Chinese, Korean, German, and Arabic. The DSM-IV version of the UCLA PTSD Reaction Index Index has been updated for DSM-5.

Richard Bryant (psychologist)

Professor Richard Allan Bryant is an Australian medical scientist. He is Scientia Professor of Psychology at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Director of the UNSW Traumatic Stress Clinic, based at UNSW and Westmead Institute for Medical Research. His main areas of research are Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Prolonged Grief Disorder. On 13 June 2016 he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), for eminent service to medical research in the field of psychotraumatology, as a psychologist and author, to the study of Indigenous mental health, as an advisor to a range of government and international organisations, and to professional societies.

Racial trauma or race-based traumatic stress, is the cumulative effects of racism on an individual’s mental and physical health. It has been linked to feelings of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation, as well as other physical health issues.

Trauma-sensitive yoga is yoga as exercise, adapted from 2002 onwards for work with individuals affected by psychological trauma. Its goal is to help trauma survivors to develop a greater sense of mind-body connection, to ease their physiological experiences of trauma, to gain a greater sense of ownership over their bodies, and to augment their overall well-being. However, a 2019 systematic review found that the studies to date were not sufficiently robustly designed to provide strong evidence of yoga's effectiveness as a therapy; it called for further research.


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