"Dissociation is a creative coping strategy a Child activates to survive the effects of being overwhelmed when faced with overpowering, painful
and terrifying events;
which the child is neither
able to understand
nor cope with.  Such traumatisation leaves
the Child protecting her/his
self through the dynamics
of dissociation".

Understanding Dissociation

Written By Susan Stubbings
What is it? - Dissociation can be thought of on a continuum from day-dreaming and automatic pilot at one end to developing what some referred to in the past as multiply-personalities or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) as it is known today.
First let’s be clear - Dissociation is neither a personality disorder or a mental health issue such as schizophrenia nor is it psychosis.
Let’s be even clearer - Dissociation is a creative coping strategy a Child activates to survive the effects of being overwhelmed when faced with overpowering, painful and terrifying events; the child is neither able to understand nor cope with.  Such traumatization leaves the Child protecting her/his self through the unconscious dynamics of dissociation.  This is not a choice for the Child who is left unprotected by the adults in her life, to the point the Child feels scared and frightened most of the time.  The dynamics of the mind take over to minimize the damage done to the Child's mental processors psychological, emotional and spiritual worlds.
It is amazing how the mind can respond when it is in survival mode.  Whilst science and medicinal has learnt vastly and developed some understanding as human beings we do not have the full extent to the power of our minds!  We have still so much to learn!
There are four main categories of dissociative disorders:

  1. Depersonalization experiences out-of-body feelings, a loss of feelings in parts of their body or have a distorted view of their own body. Characterized by the feeling or sense of being detached from one’s own body and people may tell you they watch their life from outside like a movie. People with this may say they have difficult with concentration, memory and perception.
  2. Dissociative amnesia experience gaps in their memories of what actually happened because it is far too painful to remember, it is different to normal forgetting it is one of the most common of all the dissociative disorder. This state may last from days to years.
  3. Dissociative fugue this is where a person suddenly ups and leave their home and travel to some far off town, they may not be able to recall their past and may even assume a new identity and appears normal to on-lookers.
  4. Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) this is the most severe manifestation of dissociation; it is characterized by two or more distinct personalities states which take control of the person’s behaviour. An average of 2 to 4 personalities/alters are present at diagnosis, with an average of 13 to 15 personalities emerging over the course of treatment (Coons, Bowman & Milstein, 1988; Maldonado et al., 2002). Environmental events usually trigger a sudden shifting from one personality to another (Maldonado et al., 2002). (retrieved from http://www.isst-d.org/default.asp?contentID=76#typesdd

The most common dissociative disorder which is presented in practice is known as Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (DDNOS).  DDNOS is characterized by partial dissociated self-states but do not fit the known criteria for DID or the other major presentations.  A person with this disorder will not have two or more distinct personalities therefore no switching; they will not have full amnesia and do not have distinct alters.  They may experience a trance like state which is episodic or have disruption to their usual integrated psychic functioning, they may 'zone out', 'switch off' or simple let the fear go over their head whilst they appear not to be listening or engaging in what is happening around them.  A person utilizing this type of dissociation may have built an imaginative safe place in their minds which they use as an anchor when times get difficult and they are unable to cope, a place where they feel safe and secure.  Although they may not be able to describe such a place to you or even themselves until they engage on the path to peace!

It follows in my mind that when a child is so traumatized that she has a need to depart her body because there is so much fear, pain and terror that her psyche fragments and this will alter her personality.  Some Children are widely known to have ‘imaginary’ friends this is a very creative quality and I like to perceive a person experiencing DID as a person who has two or more imaginary friends helping, supporting the Child to get through their day.   Whilst it is not 'normal' as is commonly perceived dissociation is a normal response to abnormal events.

If you have ever experienced an out of body phenomenon, a waking dream, auto-pilot or zoned out then you have experienced a form of dissociation!

Many adults dissociate but don't call it by its name we may hear "I zoned out for a while", "I drifted off" or "I felt I wasn't in the room", “I drove my car from A to B but I don’t remember any of the scenery on the way”.   These adults don't know they are on the continuum of dissociation "zoning out" is what many people do when overwhelmed, have a mind which is full or stressed.  I would go as far to say dissociation is a 'normal' response and an everyday experience for many.

Whilst it may evoke fear in some people it is perfectly normal to many.  There really is nothing to fear from a person who utilized DID or any of the dissociative disorders.

How does dissociation disorder develop?

DID’s develops mainly in childhood as a response to continual fear evoking situations such as childhood sexual abuse or where there are continual threats of violence or death.  A child’s cogitations are not developed enough to differentiate between what’s a real threat and what an actual threat of death or violence is.  To a young child any threat is taken seriously by his or her mind and the younger the child is when she feels overwhelmed or terrified the more likely she is to develop a dissociative strategy and/or find themselves at the end of the continuum in DID.
DID is a confusing disorder whether this is for the person who utilizes dissociation for survival or the people who observe the person in 'different zones'.   Many people utilize their childhood coping mechanisms as they travel through adulthood and a person utilizing DID is no different. 

Many of our adulthood strategies are outdated and whilst they served us extremely well as a Child they may now be interfering with your daily living and/or relationships.  You may be experiencing other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and you may also still be affected by your original trauma and all that brings with it.  If you would like to explore and transform your Childhood trauma/s and/or your defense mechanisms please contact me to discuss your needs and to gain professional, experienced and compassionate support. 

Susan Stubbings Doncaster