Is Dissociation A Mental Illness?
The same way newspapers and media and entertaining industries exploit “bad news” or expose the worse on us, the medical model of psychology focuses on the negative and pathological characteristics of human experiences. Pathologizing dissociation seemed harmless, but the number of individuals diagnosed with a dissociative disorder has increased exponentially. Instead of helping healing by having the awareness, we are using the awareness to dissociate in an unhealthy way and getting sicker.
Dissociation is something we do all the time because staying focused is very energy consuming and our brain needs to rest. Especially in the times we are living in where we are always overstimulated by all sorts of sensory, intellectual, and emotional experiences.
The way dissociation has been brought up recently is as one of the symptoms of trauma. And yes, it is and a very significant one; it actually is a symptoms of developmental trauma and has severe consequences in the lives of the children that suffer from it.
But dissociation has many faces and moves in a spectrum, from very short-lived mental breaks to more permanent disconnection; from disconnecting from the page of the book you are reading to disconnecting from your emotions; from forgetting where you left the keys to forgetting years of your life.
But dissociation is a protective strategy wired in our brain, and we rarely see its benefits.
I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about memory. Memory is another protective/adaptive strategy and we abuse it. We are completely obsessed with remembering everything. Instead of accepting the wisdom of our brain and body, we want to impose on them what we think is better, based on what others do or think. Our brain is designed to memorize only what it considers important for our survival. If our system decides not to store, or in this case, to dissociate an event, we should be grateful instead of jumping into the conclusion that there is something wrong with us.
Dissociating memories is an adaptive mechanism and we should respect it. If at some point we need that memory, our brain will do everything for us to have it; it’d even invent it!
Dissociating parts of your personality is also normal. Not the best, but maybe necessary, until it’s not. Once it’s not necessary to keep parts trying to do a task all by themselves (one at a time with a particular agenda), your brain will help you to integrate the part into the whole if you assess and decide it’s time.
Dissociating pain or emotional despair is good. Embrace that amazing capacity of your system and learn how to use it to your advantage. Please resist finding comfort in pathologizing your experiences.
We all experience dissociation on a daily basis. Dissociation is a characteristic of life. For example, sleeping is a way to dissociate.
We live in a society that has become very used to pathologize every human experience. Doctors have been medicating people after a loss calling depression to the natural response of humans to grief. Grief is as natural and necessary as to defecate. If we interrupt the digestion, all those toxins stay in our system as poison.
Dissociation is one of those experiences that has been used negatively instead of seeing its normalcy and its benefits. If we learn how to dissociate and how to gain control over it, we’d be happier and mentally healthier. Our brain is working 24/7 and staying focused (as in worrying for example) is extremely demanding; the brain deserves some breaks and dissociation is a very natural way to give those breaks to it.
Disassociation could be controlled by our human brain or could be controlled by our reptilian/mammalian brains. When the primitive parts of our brain take control over our lives, we become more dysfunctional as humans. We act and react as primitive creatures driven by fear and basic needs instead of using our amazing human capacities.
In the case of dissociation, we could be having a derealization experience triggered by let's say fear, and once we have a separation from what seems to be “real,” our human brain (prefrontal cortex more specifically) could have the opportunity what “real” really means. Instead of being afraid, maybe in that window of different perception, we can see that the fear is just a message, and the intensity of what we feel is not based on reality; that the “reality” is subjective and that we could decide to assign more value to our experience than to what we normally call real. Our experience is real, and we are denying our experience by giving more power to a reality that is a construct defined by others. Or let’s say that you dissociate because the event is sooo scary, that you better disconnect from it. Then, you just need to appreciate the wisdom of your body and let it be. That experience will be transient if you allow it; if you interrupt it with more fear, that will confuse your brain, and could stay stuck in the experience.
Reality is only what you experience since everyone experiences things differently. That’s why there is no reality except the constructs we had agreed upon. But when our minds challenge those constructs, instead of validating our experiences, they get pathologized. And then, our mental health suffers self-doubt, emotional turbulence, fear gets activated, and we go back to primitive functioning.
We could dissociate many times without suffering from trauma. Meditators dissociate “severely” as a way to become awakened, not as a way to get traumatized. But people that get scared by experiencing severe dissociation, could be getting traumatized by that fear more than by the derealization itself. I have had many clients that experience it after or during getting high (weed for instance) and become so preoccupied with losing their minds that start developing PTSD symptoms. Their guilt and fear start the process of primitive defenses, even when they attribute the fear to the depersonalization/derealization experience.