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  • The Many Faces Of Anxiety – Dissociation

    Last time, we looked at how It’s possible to have similar thought patterns to diagnosable mental health conditions, that cause anxiety or distress, while leading a ‘normal’ (even though there’s no such thing!) life, with a focus on panic. Today, let us explore dissociation and how it manifests daily as well as pathologically.

    he human mind showcases an extraordinary ability to adapt and shield itself in the face of overwhelming stress and trauma. One such mechanism that emerges from this intricate landscape is dissociation—a concept involving a detachment from reality, emotions, or even one’s own sense of self. This detachment can vary widely, ranging from momentary instances of spacing out to more severe cases where individuals experience a profound disconnection from the world around them.

    This mental phenomenon takes on different roles under varying circumstances. Pathological or diagnosable dissociation is usually a defining feature of the person’s experience and is most likely in response to trauma. It entails persistent experiences of detachment, identity confusion, and memory gaps that impede an individual’s ability to engage effectively with their environment, relationships, and personal well-being. It may also manifest as a feeling of derealizing, or things not feeling real, or depersonalization, or detachment from yourself. Additionally, dissociation frequently emerges as a symptom of anxiety disorders. When anxiety levels surge, the mind might employ dissociation as a defense mechanism, leading individuals to feel disconnected from their surroundings or even from themselves. This sense of detachment can be particularly pronounced during panic attacks, contributing to the sensation of unreality often associated with such episodes.

    For example, we might have experienced traumatic events such as unstable home, feelings of unsafety,  abuse, neglect, deprivation, or such in their childhood. As an adult,we find ourselves losing chunks of time and sometimes waking up in unfamiliar places without any memory of how they got there. These episodes cause significant distress and disrupt our daily life, indicating pathological dissociation.

    However, dissociation is not always synonymous with distress. On the contrary, it can serve as a temporary, adaptive coping mechanism. In less intense scenarios, dissociation offers individuals a reprieve from emotional turmoil by allowing them to mentally distance themselves from distressing situations. Think of it as the mind’s intuitive response—a momentary pause button—providing solace in the face of stress. For example, following a stressful day, we might watch a movie to unwind. As we become engrossed in the film, we feel like we’re “escaping” from worries. This temporary detachment lets us recharge and relax, without affecting overall functioning.

    In conclusion, adaptive dissociation, often referred to as normal or mild dissociation, is a fleeting coping strategy that temporarily alleviates emotional distress. This type of dissociation may manifest during routine tasks, daydreaming, or engaging in immersive activities like reading or watching a movie.

    On the other end of the spectrum lies pathological dissociation—a persistent, distressing experience that significantly disrupts an individual’s daily life and overall functioning. This level of dissociation may accompany conditions such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder), necessitating professional intervention.

    In instances where dissociation becomes a persistent or severe occurrence, seeking guidance from mental health professionals is crucial. By discerning between adaptive and pathological dissociation, individuals can better navigate their experiences, and if needed, access the professional support that can guide them toward healing and understanding. If anything you read today feels familiar, and you too would like to discover your patterns and heal from them, please book a free 15-minute consultation with us at The Trauma Healing Center. We provide virtual as well as in person therapy, accessible for those in Mississauga, Toronto, Brampton, and Oakville.


    Arushi Bajaj

    Mental Health Professional

    Member of OAMHP