What does it feel like to dissociate? If I have trauma, does that mean I dissociate? If I don’t have trauma, does that mean I can’t dissociate? Sometimes I zone out while I’m driving, does this mean I have a disorder?

Dissociation is a hot topic these days. Now that it has officially entered the chat, many people have a name for what they experience. However, this newfound awareness can bring about as many questions as it does answers.

These questions are completely valid and imply an excellent curiosity about your mental health. The general answer to all of these questions (and more) is that dissociation is a spectrum, not just a category of diagnoses.

To begin, let’s define dissociation. Dissociation is the brain’s ability to partially or completely detach itself from present reality. Lower levels of dissociation are completely normal and healthy, but higher levels may indicate that dissociation is functioning as a defense mechanism, keeping you from being fully present in a world that feels unsafe.
On the healthy, functional end of the spectrum, humans naturally zone out while doing familiar tasks such as driving to work. You have most likely experienced arriving somewhere you frequent without much memory of the drive there. You still managed to get to your destination safely, which means this falls on the lighter side of common dissociation. Another common dissociative experience is getting deeply wrapped up in books or movies and becoming slightly dulled to the present world. These kinds of things are a welcome escape from the stresses of day-to-day life, but we have the control to become fully present again.

Have you ever been in fear for your safety or the safety of others and found yourself functioning much better than normal? Another form of dissociation is actually responsible for improving function and skill. This “superhero sense” kicks in when we are truly threatened.

You may feel like your motor skills are more honed than normal, like your brain is staying calm and your critical thinking is at an all-time high. In a true emergency, many people’s brains will attempt a low level of dissociation that causes them to remain utterly calm and even more functional than in everyday life.

Things like daydreaming are slightly further along the spectrum because they are healthy but can become maladaptive. Allowing your mind to wander is a beautiful part of humanity, but having a regular world inside your mind that you escape to often may be a sign that something in your current or past experiences has made the real world a difficult place to dwell.

Finding yourself zoning out or shutting down for long periods of time, especially following a stressful event, could indicate more significant levels of dissociation. Some describe this feeling as trance-like, as if you are perceiving reality from further back in your skull than normal, or like you’re in a Claritin commercial with a fuzzy lens over the world.

Even higher levels of dissociation may involve losing large chunks of time, feeling like you are more than one person, depersonalization (watching your body from afar), or derealization (feeling like life isn’t real). If you can relate to any of these symptoms that affect daily functioning, consider discussing this with a therapist who specializes in trauma and dissociation. It’s more common than it sounds and can improve in therapy.

The most important thing to remember is that we all experience some level of dissociation, and these higher levels are our brain’s way of pulling us out of reality when we experience something too traumatic to process. It is a protective mechanism that can be replaced with other skills and can even be controlled with practice. The goal of therapy for dissociation is to make dissociation a choice, not a force you can’t control.