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    Mental Health, Trauma, White River Manor

    Dissociation: How helpful is this trauma response and how to know when you’re doing it

    Published on September 8, 2022

    Many people might be surprised to learn how beneficial some trauma responses are, despite how unpleasant the associated symptoms can sometimes be.

    Dissociation is one such response, a defense mechanism that helps a person to survive or get through a crisis or traumatic event.

    This response can sometimes happen during significant stress or when whatever is happening in your immediate environment is too disturbing or unbearable; hence, your mind and body temporarily shut down (dissociate) to help you survive.

    Trauma-related dissociation

    During stress or crisis, you may have difficulty remembering the details of a traumatic event or feel disconnected from yourself and your surroundings; you may even feel as though nothing “feels real”. 

    These responses are classified as trauma-related dissociation.

    Defining dissociation

    Trauma and mental health specialists define dissociation in multiple ways. 

    For example, some say dissociation is a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, sensory experiences, personal history, and self-identity (What Is Dissociation? Matthew Tull, Ph.D., VeryWell mind, August 24, 2022).

    Other researchers say that dissociation is “the opposite of association”, an approach that originates from Ross and Halpern’s “the general systems meaning of dissociation” (The Brain in Defence Mode: How Dissociation Helps Us Survive, Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, Good Therapy, April 29, 2015).

    Thinking of dissociation as the opposite of “association” is perhaps the most helpful way to understand this trauma response.

    A brain that is ordinarily connected to the body disconnects or “splits” during significant stress or trauma to protect the individual from disturbing memories, severe injury, or traumatic material.

    Dissociative experiences

    Dissociation is the disconnection of two or more things that were once connected or associated (The Brain in Defence Mode: How Dissociation Helps Us Survive, Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, Good Therapy, April 29, 2015).

    You may recall experiencing various emotions and body sensations if you have endured high stress or trauma.

    Perhaps you felt confused, disconnected from other people, your environment, and even yourself, or had trouble recalling the details of an event. In that case, you have likely experienced dissociation.

    Trauma dissociation

    Dissociation occurs in various ways, including disconnecting from specific bodily sensations, emotions, memories, etc.

    A particular event or experience might be too disturbing or unbearable for you to manage. Hence the brain dissociates to protect you, allowing you to survive an ordeal.

    Traumatic events

    child sitting by the bed

    Traumatic events that may trigger a dissociative response include:

    • Being involved in a car accident or other severe injury
    • A physical or sexual assault
    • Childhood trauma, for instance, parental neglect or child abuse
    • Exposure to war or natural disaster
    • The death of a loved one

    Broadly, dissociation is a trauma response that involves someone disconnecting from some part of themselves or the environment (The Brain in Defence Mode: How Dissociation Helps Us Survive, Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, Good Therapy, April 29, 2015).

    Dissociation: A prevalent phenomenon

    Researchers say dissociation is a common phenomenon that can occur in less extreme situations when there is no threat to life or imminent danger.

    Milder forms of dissociation are prevalent occurrences for many of us; for example, if you have ever wandered off in a daydream or gotten so transfixed by a movie or television show to the point that you lose all sense of awareness or time.

    What does it feel like to dissociate?

    Dissociation encompasses the feeling of being intensely focused or stuck in a daydream, or the opposite, the distressing experience of being detached from reality (Dissociation: Psychology Today).

    In a dissociative state, identity, memory, perceptions, and consciousness are no longer naturally integrated (Dissociation: Psychology Today).

    Dissociation can also be part of a dissociative disorder or other mental health conditions and usually occurs due to significant stress or a traumatic event or experience.

    Diagnosis or treatment

    According to the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), there are three major dissociative disorders, including:

    • Dissociative identity disorder
    • Dissociative amnesia
    • Depersonalisation/derealisation disorder

    Dissociative identity disorder

    Dissociative identity disorder (previously called multiple personality disorder) is when an individual’s identity is marked by two or more distinct personality states (Dissociation: Psychology Today).

    The person with dissociative identity disorder may experience a range of disruptive symptoms, such as trouble remembering or recalling specific information, whether it be regarding a traumatic event or regular activities.

    Such symptoms may lead to a weakened sense of self or disrupted self-identity, affecting various aspects of a person’s life, including work, social, relationships, and overall quality of life.

    Dissociative amnesia

    Dissociative amnesia involves someone being unable to recall specific information about themselves and their past.

    Typically, a person with dissociative amnesia cannot remember or recall traumatic events or experiences specifically, which may prevent recovery and cause much distress for the individual.

    Depersonalisation/derealisation disorder

    Depersonalisation/derealisation disorder involves feelings of unreality, detachment from oneself and one’s environment, and feeling like an outsider observing your thoughts, feelings, behaviours, or sensations.

    Episodes can be persistent, and an individual may experience severe dysfunction or impairment that affects many aspects of their life.

    People, places, or objects may seem chaotic, distorted, or unreal during episodes, causing much distress for the individual. As a result, episodes are often described as an “out-of-body experience”.

    Emotional numbness


    On the other hand, feeling nothing at all (emotional numbness) is a common experience for many trauma survivors. This is because people feel empty or numb instead of the typical feelings associated with emotional experiences or events.

    All responses are expected, and there is no right or wrong way to respond to complex life events despite what popular culture and our environment may tell us.

    Dissociation: A helpful trauma response

    Dissociation can be a helpful mechanism that allows trauma survivors to survive circumstances that might have been intolerable (The Brain in Defence Mode: How Dissociation Helps Us Survive, Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, Good Therapy, April 29, 2015).

    Moreover, dissociation can help a person navigate certain events or situations by making any emotions or sensations that may have been unbearable seem distorted and muted.

    Here, the person goes into “autopilot” mode, helping them survive extreme situations or circumstances (The Brain in Defence Mode: How Dissociation Helps Us Survive, Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, Good Therapy, April 29, 2015).

    Survival mechanism

    Ross and Halpern explain that dissociation is in-built within all of us and is not pathological.

    Dissociation is a crucial part of our ingrained survival system and is something every human does throughout various stages of life.

    This in-built system disconnects to protect us during trauma or profound stress; however, sometimes, the survival system designed to protect us can become activated even when there is no threat to life or imminent danger in the present moment.

    When trauma is chronic or ongoing, dissociation becomes “fixed and automatic,” meaning that integration of memories becomes challenging for the brain, where it continues to send signals of threat and danger even when a traumatic event is over (Steinberg and Schnall, 2001).

    In a nutshell, the individual continues to experience hyperarousal and trauma responses despite the absence of danger or threat to life.

    The goal of therapy

    There are various approaches to trauma recovery, but typically the goal is always the same; to help the brain and body to upgrade to the individual’s current circumstances.

    Trauma therapy helps a person to experience life in the present moment by integrating current information about the present circumstances in which they live (The Brain in Defence Mode: How Dissociation Helps Us Survive, Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, Good Therapy, April 29, 2015).

    Trapped memories


    Traumatic memories often hibernate in the brain and body, causing various unpleasant, disruptive symptoms for the individual.

    People may continue to re-experience their trauma through flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and dissociation.

    The goal of therapy is to release traumatic material, relieving the individual of unpleasant symptoms, which allows the traumatic memory to be reprocessed and stored correctly. 

    The original climate in which traumatic memories are stored often leads to adverse outcomes due to the brain’s environment when the actual memory was stored.

    For example, during a traumatic event, the brain experiences significant changes in chemistry and functioning due to nervous system arousal, which can distort a person’s beliefs and perceptions.

    Changing negative belief systems through positive statements, such as” I am worthy” and “I did the best I could with what I knew at the time”, is also integral to trauma recovery.  

    EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy) and cognitive behaviour therapies can help accomplish this. 

    It might be helpful if you remembered that dissociation is a response designed to protect you, despite how confusing or scary the symptoms can be.

    One therapist described dissociation as a “gift” our brains give us to help us survive difficult experiences; however, many therapists acknowledge that this defense mechanism can sometimes work longer than intended.

    Therapy and support are often needed when a person experiences more than an average level of dissociation to help them upgrade their brain’s knowledge of the current circumstances.

    Contact us

    If you want more information about this article or wish to speak to a specialist, contact the White River Manor team today.

    We specialise in treating various mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and trauma. Our team is always on hand to lend a friendly ear.

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    About Giles Fourie

    Giles Fourie is the director and co-founder of White River Manor. He is dedicated to providing the best care for clients seeking recovery from substance abuse, anxiety, depression, or co-occurring disorders.