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Trauma & Dissociation

As mental health awareness grows, the term "dissociation" is being used more commonly in conversation and on social media, but what is dissociation exactly?

Broadly speaking, dissociation is a psychological coping mechanism that the brain uses to protect itself from overwhelming or traumatic experiences. Although Dissociative Disorders and Trauma-and Stressor-related Disorders are separate categories in the psychiatric diagnostic manual (the DSM-5), many clinicians recognize that trauma and dissociation go hand-in-hand, and that dissociative symptoms result from overwhelming, stressful, and traumatic experiences. 


Dissociation can involve feeling detached from one’s body, thoughts, emotions, memories, surroundings, and/or aspects of one’s identity. Symptoms can range from mild, temporary experiences, to severe, long-lasting experiences such as found in dissociative disorders. Sometimes symptoms are obvious and other times people are unaware that what they are experiencing is dissociation. Often when people talk about dissociation, they are referring to feeling detached from one’s body, but this is only one way symptoms can manifest. Dissociation is an umbrella term that can be broken down into three main categories: 

  • Depersonalization: feeling disconnected or detached from one's body, including feeling numb, observing oneself from outside of one’s body, or the feeling that one’s body is not their own. 

  • Derealization: feeling detached from one's surroundings, or feeling as if one’s environment is foreign, unreal, distorted or distant, as if in a dream.  

  • Structural Dissociation: fragmentation of the personality into “parts” that serve important functions, such as helping a person cope with or even forget stressful and traumatic memories. Depending on the theoretical understanding, the presence of parts can be considered a normal, healthy experience (such as described by Internal Family Systems), or it can be an indication that an integrated and coherent sense of self was unable to form due to trauma or a lack of secure attachment (such as described by the Theory of Structural Dissociation). Symptoms range widely from relatively mild, such as flashbacks or being afraid to remember a traumatic event, to severe, such as amnesia found in Dissociative Identity Disorder.


Have you experienced any of these symptoms? Dissociation is a normal and adaptive response to stress and trauma; however, if symptoms cause distress or interfere with daily functioning, it’s important to seek mental health support from a therapist with specialized training in treating dissociative symptoms. Somatic therapy, IFS, and modified EMDR can all be helpful in treating dissociation, depending on the type and severity of symptoms and the client’s goals. Our therapists are trained to screen for dissociative disorders prior to administering modalities that involve eye movements, such as EMDR and ART. Click here to learn more about why eye movements are not typically recommended for people with dissociative disorders.  

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