Dissociation is a psychological process that often occurs in response to extreme trauma or pain. It is an automatic response determined by severity of the trauma and the individual's ability to endure psychological pain and emotional distress. Dissociation is a disruption in normal information processing and allows the person to block negative emotions and experiences from consciousness and compartmentalize traumatic memories.

Dissociation is separating or postponing a feeling that normally would be associated with a thought. It is a coping mechanism that is useful for a child's survival. However, it becomes problematic when individuals continue to use it as adults and develop patterns of dissociation. They are not present to their lives. Dissociation is an avoidance coping strategy because the person disconnects the links between awareness, thoughts, feelings, memories, and behavior.

Abuse victims dissociate to escape the abuse. They create a distance between what is happening to their bodies and the feelings and thoughts that are connected to the experience. Survivors might describe the abuse event and say they really were not there: they were watching from a distance or went far away inside themselves. Many sexual abuse victims report gaps in memory, varying from events to chunks of lost childhood memories in which they cannot retrieve memories. Dissociation is common in victims as they try to reduce the emotional pain associated to the abuse.

Dissociation is experienced in different ways. Briere and Elliott (1994) outline some examples:

  • Experiencing the self as unreal
  • Spacing out or daydreaming
  • Changes in sensory perception
  • Emotional numbing
  • Out-of-body experiences
  • Amnesia regarding abuse memories
  • Dissociative Personality Disorder.

Different types of dissociation have been identified, as well as different levels. Some say that everyone dissociates occasionally when overwhelmed. Examples include: daydreaming, being "somewhere else" during a stressful event, and being with a person but avoiding awareness and attention to reality. Psychological dissociation is different from somatic dissociation. Psychological dissociation includes the thoughts, memories, and memories associated with the trauma. These may be separate from consciousness and no memory is retrievable for those events. Symptoms are psychological and are related to PTSD. With somatic dissociation, symptoms are physical. Individuals who have experienced trauma have higher levels of illness and associate these symptoms to organic illness, rather than the trauma. One of the consequences of child sexual abuse is increased illness. Mothers of sexually abused children also experience negative health effects following disclosure of a child's sexual abuse.

Dissociation has been shown to result in the victim experiencing higher levels of symptoms over time, lower self-esteem, and more guilt and anger. Dissociation as an ongoing coping strategy is maladaptive. The person is escaping her life, attempting to avoid feelings, thoughts, and memories, but, in effect, missing huge chunks of her life. The antidote to dissociation is mindfulness, being aware of when you are not present and returning to the here and now.


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