why do I dissociate?

Dissociation is a phenomena that happens to a person when their nervous system is activated  by a trigger in the present environment, that reminds a person of a traumatic incident from their  past. Dissociation is part of the continuum of the freeze or immobilized state that a person may experience as part of an adaptive survival response to a traumatic event.

Lets talk about an example of freeze, or immobilized state first, before we return to Dissociation.

For example,  when a mouse is taunted by a cat it will freeze. The cat gets bored and goes away until it notes the mouse begins to move again.  Taunted by the cat again, the mouse freezes until  either the cat kills the mouse, or the mouse literally freezes to death. This is an example of a response  to a threat  known as freeze or immobilization.

For humans in this freeze state, sometimes a person leaves their body and watches the trauma from above their body or leaves completely with no memory of the event. This is natures way of protecting us.

In some cases people have reported a dissociative experience being similar to near death.

If then, during a traumatic incident, one dissociates, when they return to their body, or back to the present, their memory of the incident will not be integrated. It will likely be fragmented.

Fragmented means a person might remember  pieces of the memory.  In some cases there is no memory, simply a body sensation that is connected to the traumatic event.  Lets use the metaphor of broken glass on the floor. These traumatic memories are fragmented like broken glass ( pieces of a memory, or a body sensation).

Its easy then to begin to understand how a trigger in the present, such as a smell, internal body sensation,  facial expression,  or tone of voice can be a trigger for a person to dissociate in the present.  The trigger in the present environment  sends the nervous system back to the past traumatic event.

This can be quite frightening for a person especially when a person does not understand why they dissociate.  Where a person fits on the continuum of dissociation will depend on how severe the episodes are. In the more severe cases, some people speak to losing hours in a day and ending up in places without knowing how they got there.


Dissociation  can fall into three compartments, Primary, Secondary and Tertiary.

Primary dissociation:

When a traumatic event occurs the person is unable to integrate the entire experience into the consciousness.  The traumatic event is fragmented into isolated pieces without integration of a personal narrative. There is a lack of cognitive understanding of the experience.

Secondary Dissociation

A person in a dissociated state  experiences the self-acting in the event as if watching from above or from a distance. Such an experience permits a person to distance themselves and view the event as a spectator. There is lack of  feelings and emotions related to the trauma. People who have survived complex PTSD, Dissociation not otherwise specified, depersonalization often fit into this category.

Tertiary Dissociation 

A person develops distinct ego states that contain the traumatic experience. These appear as personalities with distinct cognitive, affective,  and behavioral patterns. Persons with Dissociative Identity Disorder often are in this category.

A trained EMDR therapist who has advanced training in Dissociation can help a person integrate.

Look for a therapist who has this specialized training before attempting to get help with this.

One Reply to “why do I dissociate?”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.