Definition of Dissociation
The first thing you should know about dissociation is it is instinctive, natural, essentially adaptive & universal to all humans. However, although everyone can and does dissociate, as with all natural abilities, some people dissociate more easily than others. Children are generally more adept at dissociation than adults, but for adults who had to dissociate very frequently during childhood, dissociation can become their default coping mechanism when under stress and this can become problematic.
Dissociation enables one or more of the many different aspects of an experience to be stored in your brain separately, kept separate and possibly very fragmented. The different aspects of any experience may include thoughts, sensations, feelings, perceptions, sense of body, sense of self, behaviours and memories etc. Dissociation minimises awareness of the effects of an experience in its entirety. In doing so it supports focus on the stimuli and tasks necessary to safely complete, survive or manage the experience in a way that minimises immediate harm; or enables physical escape, if escape is possible. Dissociation can be experienced as psychological or as affecting the body (i.e. somatic) or both.
In a range of everyday situations it is a normal response. Everyday (i.e. not trauma-based) dissociation is also known as alterations of consciousness. An example of this is the common highway hypnosis in which, when following a familiar route, a driver can arrive at his/her destination without a detailed memory of the journey, but has none-the less driven safely and with the ability at all times to immediately bring focus back onto the minutiae of the journey if necessary e.g. if a light turns red ahead of him/her. This everyday dissociation allows the driver to subconsciously filter out aspects of the driving experience which are not essential to arriving safely at his/her destination, but by doing so s/he cannot afterwards access a detailed memory of the journey – s/he has a selective dissociative amnesia for the journey which does not affect the driver’s health or well-being.
During abuse or other trauma (whether one-off or repeated) dissociation is also normal and can be a highly adaptive coping or survival mechanism. When dissociation occurs during a traumatic event it is known as peri-traumatic dissociation and has the same function as everyday dissociation i.e. it filters out and stores separately in the brain aspects of the experience not essential or helpful for immediate survival.
Thus, dissociation is used to prevent a person from becoming overwhelmed when an experience is perceived to be too distressing, painful, traumatising, life-threatening, or even simply over-stimulating. Or in the case of some everyday alterations of consciousness (e.g. daydreaming) it can be a protection against under-stimulation. All types of dissociation can be experienced transiently. It is only when the experiences are chronic, and/or are severely affecting your home, social, work or school/college/university life that they are considered to be maladaptive and possibly a dissociative disorder.