Everyone dissociates at one time or another. A mild form of dissociation is "zoning out." The most severe form of dissociation is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). So what is dissociation and how does dissociation develop?
Dissociation: From mild to extreme
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.
Most clinicians believe that dissociation exists on a continuum of severity. This continuum reflects a wide range of experiences and/or symptoms. At one end are mild dissociative experiences common to most people, such as daydreaming, highway hypnosis, or "getting lost" in a book or movie, all of which involve "losing touch" with conscious awareness of one's immediate surroundings. At the other extreme is complex, chronic dissociation, such as in cases of Dissociative Disorders, which may result in serious impairment or inability to function. Some people with Dissociative Disorders can hold highly responsible jobs, contributing to society in a variety of professions, the arts, and public service -- appearing to function normally to coworkers, neighbors, and others with whom they interact daily.
How does dissociation develop?
When faced with overwhelmingly traumatic situations from which there is no physical escape, a child may resort to "going away" in his or her head. Children typically use this ability as an extremely effective defense against acute physical and emotional pain, or anxious anticipation of that pain. By this dissociative process, thoughts, feelings, memories, and perceptions of the traumatic experiences can be separated off psychologically, allowing the child to function as if the trauma had not occurred.
Dissociative Disorders are often referred to as a highly creative survival technique because they allow individuals enduring "hopeless" circumstances to preserve some areas of healthy functioning. Over time, however, for a child who has been repeatedly physically and sexually assaulted, defensive dissociation becomes reinforced and conditioned. Because the dissociative escape is so effective, children who are very practiced at it may automatically use it whenever they feel threatened or anxious--even if the anxiety-producing situation is not extreme or abusive.
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Often, even after the traumatic circumstances are long past, the left-over pattern of defensive dissociation remains. Chronic defensive dissociation may lead to serious dysfunction in work, social, and daily activities.
Repeated dissociation may result in a series of separate entities, or mental states, which may eventually take on identities of their own. These entities may become the internal "personality states" of a DID system. Changing between these states of consciousness is often described as "switching."
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV)