What is Dissociation & How to Stop It

By Dr. Nicole Cain ND, MA

How often do you daydream?

Believe it or not, daydreaming is a regular part of our daily lives and it’s something we do a few times a day. But have you ever found yourself disconnected from yourself and the world around you while you distract your attention from the present moment? To make things worse, sometimes you might even experience this strange sensation of disconnection even when you try to get back to reality.

If this sounds familiar, this article about dissociation may help you find answers to the questions you’ve been constantly asking yourself lately.

Dissociation is a sense of detachment from both your inner emotions, thoughts, memories and the external world. It’s a state when you’re zoning out and losing a sense of time.

In this article, you’re going to learn about what dissociation is, explore 6 signs that you might be dissociating, and I’ll also teach you the 4S Model to STOP dissociating.

What is Dissociation?

The American Psychiatric Association defines dissociation as a state of “disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of who he or she is.” In simple words, dissociation means to dis-associate or remove the association from something.

Although every individual experiences the state of dissociation differently, the most common experiences associated with dissociation are the sense of being detached from your own body and feeling as if the world around you isn’t real.

It goes without saying that feeling dissociated from yourself or the outside world is an unpleasant feeling. However, dissociation does have a purpose. In fact, it’s a strategy your nervous system may use in order to try to protect itself from the effects of trauma. If you wonder how it works exactly, dissociation distances a person from the intensity of extremely intense or overwhelming emotions.

Considering this, some of the most common examples of dissociation can be daydreaming, getting overwhelmed by a book, music, or movie, or experiencing a trance-like sensation of losing touch with the external world.

Still, believe it or not, studies prove that dissociation is a very natural coping mechanism. However, it’s considered a maladaptive coping mechanism that results in short-term relief but has negative psychological consequences in the long-term perspective (Ociskova et al., 2015). Nevertheless, the effects of dissociation depend on its intensity, which can vary from mild, where you feel a slight sense of disconnect, all the way to the other end of the spectrum in a disorder called dissociative identity disorder. Unfortunately, this mental health disorder is a serious condition that often slows down optimal functioning and leads to psychotic experiences, or hallucinations (Longden et al., 2020).

6 Signs That You Dissociate

Sometimes you may notice that you feel detached from the inner or outer world. Or you may forget some things or find it hard to focus on the present moment. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you dissociate. But if you have most of the following 6 signs, then chances are that you are experiencing dissociation.

1)   You zone out

Have you ever heard the phrase “mind wandering”? If you notice that you find it hard to pay attention to whatever is happening around you, or that your thoughts can’t relate to your immediate environment or a task you’re doing, then you probably resonate with this phrase.

That’s exactly what “zoning out” means. It’s a mild form of dissociation that’s considered the brain’s default process for disengaging your attention from things that happen around you. Sometimes this condition is caused by having too much information to process, but more often it can be a result of stress or trauma. And in this case, zoning out is a sign of dissociation.

2)   Feeling disconnected from the world around you

If you’re losing touch with external reality and feel disconnected from the world around you, then you might be experiencing a state of dissociation. One of the most obvious signs of dissociation is feeling detached from your surroundings. This sign is known as “derealization” in psychology and is considered a symptom of dissociation.

Surprisingly, about 2% of the general population has experienced derealization at least once in their lives. However, constantly feeling disconnected from the environment isn’t normal and might be a sign of dissociation.

3)   Feeling disconnected from yourself

Not only from the outside world but feeling disconnected from yourself is also a sign of dissociation. Similar to the previous sign, this symptom is known as “depersonalization,” and it means being detached from your inner world, your thoughts and emotions, and, in general, losing the perception of self. While having this feeling occasionally is natural, a constant state of depersonalization, especially when it’s accompanied by derealization, is a sign of dissociation.

4)   Emotional detachment, feelings of numbness

Feeling detached from your thoughts and environment isn’t everything when you’re dissociated. To make matters worse, another sign of dissociation is disconnected from your emotions and feelings of numbness. Being emotionally numb means losing the ability to express emotions and experience emotions. While this state is a common symptom of mood disorders such as depression, it can also be caused by acute stress or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

5)   Losing time

When people are dissociated, they often experience periods of losing time, which might continue for minutes, hours, or sometimes even a few days. Usually, they’re conscious and aware during this state, but they lose their sense of time.

For example, you might forget how to drive to work, or you might have trouble remembering where you were and what you were doing just a few minutes ago. In psychiatry, this state is known as “dissociative fugue,” and is often related to amnesia. However, listing time in combination with previously discussed signs is a common symptom of dissociation.

6)   Feeling like time is moving more quickly or more slowly

While sometimes people completely lose the sense of time, at other times, dissociation can be accompanied by the thought that time is moving either too quickly or too slowly. Therefore, if you notice time distortions and feel that time has passed much quicker than you thought or feel like an hour seems like the whole day, you may be dissociating from your inner world and physical reality.

The 4-S Model to Stop Dissociation

Dissociation is indeed a very confusing and sometimes distressing experience, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything in order to reduce the impact of these irritating experiences. The 4-S model is one of the simplest yet most effective methods to stop dissociation.

Let’s discuss the four parts of the 4-S model: scent, scene, sight, and sound.

1.   Scent

Focusing on the scents in your surroundings is a great way to get back to reality and stop feeling dissociated. The reason is that smells activate the brain stem and help you get back into your body. So, try scents such as essential oils, flowers, or anything intense in order to stop dissociation.

2.   Scene

You may find this a bit surprising, but when it comes to reconnecting with reality, the scene around you plays a crucial role. The reason is that your brain is very assertive, and relocating and changing the scene is a powerful pattern interrupt and can help get you back in your body.

3.   Sight

Activating the visual cortex of your brain is another efficient way to get back into your body. It’s a primary cortical region of the brain that aims to receive, integrate, and process visual information. Therefore, by stimulating your sight with sensory information, you can stop dissociation. For example, you can try to turn the lights on if they’re off, or off if they’re on, or just change what you’re looking at.

4.   Sound

Another significant part of the brain that can help you get free of dissociative feelings is the auditory cortex. This part of the brain receives inputs from auditory stimuli and processes sounds in your surrounding environment. Therefore, working with the auditory cortex through music can be a powerful strategy to stop dissociation. For instance, playing soothing or upbeat music can be a key step toward getting back into your body.

Final Thoughts

All in all, being dissociated from your body, mind, and emotions is likely to significantly disrupt your form of optimal functioning. However, being aware of the key symptoms of this mental condition and understanding the 4-S model can help you overcome the feelings of dissociation and return to reality. So, remember to focus on your sight as well as the scene, sounds, and scents around you, and use this strategy whenever you feel dissociated.

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Whenever considering changing your protocol whether it includes a change of medications, supplements, diet or lifestyle, always speak with your primary care physician first.

Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational free resources, online courses, and membership group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.