You probably are familiar with the sensation of feeling “zoned out”—the world around you momentarily seems unreal or looks strange or unfamiliar. In these moments, you could be experiencing a psychological phenomenon known as dissociation.
What Is Dissociation?
In broad terms, dissociation represents a disconnect between your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, perceptions, memories, and identity.
When it happens occasionally, dissociation is usually not a problem for most people. However, if it happens frequently or is intense, it could be a sign of a mental health condition, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD). Around 75% to 80% of people with BDP report experiencing stress-related dissociation.1
Dissociation during times of stress is one of the main symptoms of BPD. It’s also associated with acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), both of which can co-occur with BPD.
It’s important to note that not everyone with BPD experiences dissociation. Even if you don’t experience dissociation frequently or it’s not very severe, almost everyone has experienced mild forms of dissociation from time to time.
Common examples of mild dissociation include:
- Getting caught up in a book or movie to the extent that you are unaware of what’s going on around you
- Zoning out (for example, you are driving on the highway and realize that you missed your exit, but you don’t remember driving the last few miles)
After years of study, researchers are now able to describe the experiences that go along with dissociation, including depersonalization, derealization, amnesia, identity confusion, and identity alteration. 2
Depersonalization is the feeling of being separate from your body. People who experience depersonalization often say it feels like they are observing their own body from the outside, or as if they’re in a dream.
Similar to depersonalization, derealization is a feeling of being detached from the external world, which can include other people or objects. Familiar things can look strange, unreal, or unfamiliar.
Derealization and depersonalization often occur at the same time.
Some people experience periods of amnesia or “losing time”—from minutes to hours or even days. Even though they awake during these times, they cannot remember where they were or what they were doing. This type of amnesia is sometimes referred to as a dissociative fugue.
Identity confusion occurs when you experience an inner struggle about who you really are. People might have a hard time figuring out who they are in relation to others.
Sometimes (and particularly for people with BPD), identity issues make it hard for a person to figure out where they end and another person (such as a spouse) begins.
Identity alteration is the sense that you are acting like a different person. For example, you see an object in your home that you don’t recognize or perform a skill that you don’t remember learning. Sometimes, you might become aware of identity alteration because other people in your life say that you are behaving like someone else.
Mild identity alteration is common in the general population (for example, using a different name in different situations). The key difference is that you are aware of your identity or role change in these situations and it doesn’t cause problems with your ability to function in your day-to-day life or relationships.
Moderate identity alteration is common in BPD and involves changes in mood or behavior that are not under your control.
The exact cause of dissociation is unknown, but it often affects people who have experienced repetitive, overwhelming trauma, such as severe child abuse or neglect.1
Dissociation appears to be the brain’s way of coping and separating from trauma, which can make it more bearable. If you learned to dissociate in times of extreme stress as a child, it likely affected the way your concept of yourself developed. It might have even carried over into how you react to stressful situations as an adult.
Trauma doesn’t necessarily cause dissociation to develop, nor do you have to have experienced it to have symptoms of dissociation.
Some early research that is using neuroimaging to examine people with BPD and dissociative symptoms has indicated that there might be actual changes in brain function and communication that contribute to dissociation.1
Researchers can use imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans to see the brains of people experiencing dissociation.
Brain scans of people with BPD and dissociative symptoms have shown evidence of decreased activity in the limbic temporal areas of the brain, increased activity in the frontal area of the brain, and changes in communication between the two areas.
More research in this area could help researchers determine which brain processes are related to dissociative symptoms, as well as make psychotherapy more targeted and beneficial for people who experience dissociation.
Treatments for BPD such as dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) often include components that help reduce dissociation. Treatment for dissociation is usually based on building skills to help you reconnect with yourself, the present moment, and your current surroundings.
Grounding is one skill that can be used to reduce dissociation. Grounding exercises involve using external stimuli and your five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste) to reconnect with the present. For example, a visual grounding exercise will have you observe small details in the environment around you until you are feeling more connected.
Some people respond better to grounding exercises that use sensation to bring them back to reality, such as holding an ice cube for a few moments, chewing a piece of minty gum, or smelling a lemon.
Certain mental health disorders have dissociation as a central feature rather than a symptom. For example, dissociative identity disorder (DID) is characterized by severe dissociation that causes a person to develop different personalities.
The vast majority of people with dissociative identity disorder have experienced childhood abuse, including physical and/or sexual abuse, and neglect.3
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are two other main dissociative disorders:
- Dissociative amnesia
- Depersonalization/derealization disorder