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As people become more and more open about their mental health struggles, you’ve likely heard friends or social media influencers name and describe their experience of dissociation. Whether you’re a little confused as to what exactly they mean by it or you think you might have experienced dissociation yourself, read through the basics of this coping mechanism, below.

What Is Dissociation?

“Dissociation is a disconnection from one or more of the following: your thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, or identity,” says C. Leigh McInnis, L.P.C., executive director at Newport Healthcare Virginia. “It’s the experience of feeling detached from reality or the people around you, your body, and your overall environment.” And whether or not you realize it, odds are you’ve experienced dissociation before — after all, simply daydreaming to the point of losing touch with what’s going on around you can count as a mild form of dissociation. Think of it this way: If you’ve ever driven a familiar stretch of road only to realize that you don’t remember the last several miles, you’ve experienced dissociation, according to Mental Health America.

That being said, when dissociation is more severe or chronic, it’s typically a way for people — especially those who have endured very traumatic experiences (e.g. assault, abuse, accidents) — to protect themselves from situations they perceive as threatening. “Dissociation usually occurs as a way of managing trauma or stress that is so high, the individual cannot otherwise cope,” says Jaclyn Halpern, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist and clinical supervisor at Washington Behavioral Medicine Associates. “It’s generally unconscious.”

That said, dissociation doesn’t actually protect you; it only creates the illusion of protecting you. “In detaching and disconnecting from one’s thoughts, feelings, memories, and self, there is often a sense of relief, protection, and separation from the perceived danger of reality,” says Brooke Schwartz, L.C.S.W., L.M.S.W., a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. (And that’s exactly why one Shape editor started dissociating during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Dissociation can range in severity, with more mild forms being what happens when you daydream or get “lost” in a book, according to Mental Health America. That being said, it often occurs as a symptom related to specific mental health disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD, and more.

“When dissociation becomes chronic, dissociative amnesia or depersonalization-derealization disorder may be diagnosed, depending on the individual’s symptoms,” adds Halpern. Unlike the other aforementioned mental illness, though, dissociative identity disorder, dissociative amnesia, and depersonalization-derealization are dissociative disorders, meaning they “involve more pervasive, persistent, and involuntary experiences” of dissociation.

What Does Dissociation Feel Like?

If you haven’t experienced it yourself (or if you’re trying to figure out if you have), it can be difficult to grasp what dissociation feels like, especially since it’s a highly personal and variable experience. For example, a dissociative episode can last anywhere from minutes to weeks or months, says Schwartz.

People often “describe feeling as if they and the world are unreal or as if they are outside of their body,” says Halpern. “They may say that they feel like they are watching themselves in a movie.” Similarly, you might also feel “emotionally numb or detached as well as little or no pain,” adds McInnis.

For others, however, dissociation can involve hearing voices in your head, experiencing tunnel vision, having an altered sense of time, feeling light-headed, or as if your heart is pounding, says McInnis.

And being that dissociation is often unconscious, you might not even “feel” like anything is all that different until you try to recall certain happenings. “After dissociating, people may not remember things that happened to them, such as any trauma they experienced or things that occurred while they were dissociating,” explains Halpern. (Related: Exploring Your Dark Side Through Shadow Work)

Dissociation Symptoms

Remember: Not every experience of dissociation will look the same. But here are some signs and symptoms to look out for, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • Memory loss surrounding specific events, interactions, or experiences

  • A sense of detachment from your emotions (aka emotional numbness) and identity

  • Feeling as if the world is unreal; out-of-body experiences

  • Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide

From the outside, someone who’s dissociating may appear disconnected or non-responsive as you interact with them, adds Halpern. “They might seem to space out, and their face may go blank,” she says. “You might be concerned if someone has trouble recalling specific events of information, particularly related to trauma; if they are experiencing mood swings, substance abuse, suicidality, or other mental health symptoms that are unusual for them, particularly following a traumatic event; or if they seem to be displaying different identities.”

How to Deal with Dissociation

Although it’s often an unconscious tactic, some people (especially with enough time in therapy) might be able to recognize when they’re dissociating. And good news: There are a number of techniques you can practice to get yourself back into a present state — just know it may take some trial and error to find out which one works best for you.

“If someone is aware they are dissociating, either in the moment or after, they can try to use mindfulness and grounding exercises that involve tuning into their senses and breathing to bring them into the present moment,” says Halpern. “They might also use visualization techniques to help create a sense of safety and security.” This could mean counting the number of things in the room that are a certain color or picturing a nature setting, such as a beach, and then running through the sensations of being there (e.g. the feeling of sand beneath your toes, the sound of crashing waves, the warmth of sunlight).

Surrounding yourself with a support system of friends, family, or medical professionals is key to dealing with dissociation. “Create a list of interventions that help you to disrupt dissociation [such as the above] and share it with your identified [sources of support],” advises McInnis. This way they’re aware of how to best help you during dissociative episodes. You might also want to “invite feedback about their observations when you dissociate,” she says. “They could have helpful insights about potential environmental triggers and signs that you are dissociating.”

While you can manage an isolated episode of dissociation at home if you need to, you shouldn’t take it lightly. “Anyone experiencing dissociation, and especially those who have experienced trauma or who are feeling suicidal should seek immediate support,” says Halpern. “Emergency rooms and crisis clinics are generally available to help. Mental health providers, including therapists and psychiatrists, can also provide longer-term support.”

How to Help Someone with Dissociation

First, you need to know how to figure out if someone is dissociating. And while everyone’s different, some common indications are “if their eyes glaze over, they seem ‘checked out’ or ‘spacey,’ their tone changes, they’re quieter than usual, or they’re staring off into space,” explains Schwartz. “Many people who dissociate won’t remember conversations discussed at the time.”

If you spot some of these signs of dissociation in a loved one, you should assess whether they may pose a danger to themselves or to others. And if you think they might be sure to seek professional support, stat. “First responders are trained to de-escalate people having a mental health crisis, and they can generally get people safely to a hospital,” says Halpern.

“If someone is dissociating and behaving safely, you can help them by gently engaging their senses into the present moment, helping them focus on their breathing, and generally remaining a calm and centered presence,” she explains. (Related: What to Say to Someone with Anxiety, According to Mental Health Experts)

Think of how you might comfort someone who’s upset. “If the person will allow you to touch them, do so in a way that is gentle and reassuring,” says Schwartz “You might use soothing music, dim the lights, provide a heavy blanket, put an ice cube in their hands, talk in a calm, prosodic voice, and, most importantly, help the person remain in a safe space.”

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