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Dissociative states of mind

Dissociative states of mind can be brought on by:

  • too much stress
  • by living through traumatic events (PTSD)
  • repeated traumatic events (CPTSD)

Dissociation refers to a sense of feeling cut off from yourself or from the people around you. It can be a disturbing experience involving an unsettling sense of detachment. 

What does dissociation feel like?

A client said: ‘I realized my memory and ability to concentrate were shot to pieces. My wife would speak about conversations she’d remembered us having, and I couldn’t remember a thing about them.  I couldn’t remember the plots of films I’d watched yesterday, or a page of a book I was reading five minutes ago.’

Like anything, the experiences of dissociation can range

If we think of dissociation as a continuum, at one end the experience might be:

  • Realizing you have forgotten something
  • Being caught up in daydreaming
  • Noticing continual lapses in concentration

At the other end, the experience may be more disturbing and extreme, possibly involving more paranoid thoughts.

Sufferers might identify a different side of themselves, or a different personality, possibly a sense of multiple personalities. This might be understood through a diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).

How dissociative states of mind develop

When a stressful or traumatic event happens it overloads us, we simply cannot process what is happening.  One response is that parts of our minds become split off.  The effect of this is that we retain a space that can be retreated into.  This means that we are protected from being overwhelmed.

When we are under extreme threats, when we feel that our minds are going to implode, we have to find a safe space.  This provides us with refuge at the time, but if this is not picked up, then the split off dissociated part of us can remain left behind and our on-going development severely compromised. It is very difficult to deliver our potential when parts of us are being cut off or dissociated.

It is as though under intense stress a fissure or crack has opened in our minds and psyche, and once this has happened the cracks do not heal or close up by themselves.

Once this has happened we remain vulnerable to falling into the fissures that opened at these traumatic times.

A client said: ‘I would suddenly feel unstable or consumed with feelings of worry or anger.  I would develop one-track thinking and feel I was being taken advantage of.  I would see threats everywhere, a paranoid state would overtake me and there was nothing I could do about it.

When these states of mind took hold of me that was it. I would be totally dominated by them.  It took me a long time and great deal of therapy to realize what was happening.’

Treating dissociative states of mind in psychotherapy

Treating these kinds of problems can require a lengthy process.  It can involve long-term psychotherapy through which a therapeutic alliance can develop.  If this can happen, then the client may start to feel safe, may start to relax, and the ability to trust again can develop.

The level of stress that has been experienced may have triggered a spike in hormones such as cortisol and noradrenaline.  Overexposure to high levels of these hormones can have the effect of triggering a prolonged experience of restlessness and anxiety.

In therapy it is possible that gradually as trust becomes established the individual’s sympathetic nervous system can settle down and reset.  This kind of work takes time.

But if this happens, then in psychotherapy clients may be able to develop insight into the way they dissociate and into their dissociated states of mind.

Through the therapy a gradual sense of continuity of personality may be developed, where previously there has been the experience of continual interruptions to concentration and connection with others.

If this can happen then the clients may start to build bridges between these dissociated parts of themselves, and so start to integrate them again.

Dissociative states of mind

Toby Ingham

Toby Ingham is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and supervisor based in High Wycombe in England. Toby works on both a short and long-term basis with people who are trying to work through a variety of situations. Sometimes these relate to a specific event such as CPTSD, bereavement, divorce or redundancy, sometimes relating to a more general problem or behavior. He blogs on a wide range of psychological themes.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Dissociative states of mind. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 25 Mar 2018
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