Dissociation and Anxiety: What It Is, Different Types, and More

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

Do you ever feel like your mind and your body are disconnected, or perhaps like nothing feels quite real? If so, please note this is a very common form of dissociation that many people experience on a daily basis. In this article, we will discuss this often hard to describe phenomenon, including its underlying characteristics and its connection with anxiety.

We will explore various types of dissociation and their impact on mental health. You will learn about some grounding techniques for dissociation, as well as the best place for you to receive help.

Understanding Dissociation

Dissociation is a mental health condition that is often poorly understood. It is a psychological process that leads a person to feel disconnected from their thoughts, emotions, or memories.

Dissociation can be an everyday occurrence in which one’s attention becomes so absorbed in some mundane activity, that conscious awareness is averted. Examples include scrolling social media, immersing oneself in a good book, playing video games, or being overly consumed in a hobby.

Dissociation can also be a psychological response to trauma or stress, manifesting as a temporary escape from reality. When a person dissociates, they may enter a dreamlike state which allows them to mentally distance themselves from an uncomfortable situation.

Although, in its more mild form, this defense mechanism can offer them a sense of safety, it can also lead to a state of depersonalization and derealization. 

When the detachment from reality is persistent, it can have a strong impact on someone’s sense of identity, detaching them from their immediate surroundings. In extreme cases, it can even lead to things like dissociative identity disorder.

How Different Types of Dissociation Affect Mental Health

There are several different forms of dissociation, some of which are caused by anxiety and some of which are not. While many people “zone out” or daydream during stress, extreme trauma can cause more significant effects.

Depersonalization is the feeling of being detached from one’s body or one’s thoughts. It can feel like you are an outside observer of things happening to you.

Derealization is a sensation that the world around you is strange, or unreal. Locations may seem “foggy”, even without a physical fog, and the world might appear lifeless or visually distorted. This can sometimes then trigger feelings of anxiety or more troubling moods.

Dissociative amnesia is the inability to recall information, usually due to a traumatic or stressful event at the time one heard it. This can be a terrifying feeling for the sufferer, as it can feel as though they are not experiencing the world in the same way as others.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) involves the presence of two or more distinct identity states. Each identity may have a unique name, history, and distinct characteristics. Some people with DID can recollect details of when other identities act, whereas others do not.

A dissociative fugue is a sudden and unexpected need to travel away from one’s usual home. It comes with an inability to remember past events, including one’s name or identity. While it is often a short-lived experience, examples exist of those for whom the condition lasted far past a few weeks.

Each of the above can have a serious impact on one’s mental health due to needing to come to terms with the effects of dissociation. For this reason, it is important to ensure you know the full extent of how it can affect you.

Breaking Down the Myths About Dissociation

There are many things people believe about dissociation that are not true. These can confuse both sufferers and others and, in some cases, can create a dangerous situation if the misinformation spreads. The following are some of the most egregious examples of such myths:

Myth: Dissociation always indicates a serious mental illness.

Truth: While it can be a symptom of some disorders, milder dissociative periods are common in many people during stress.

Myth: People who dissociate are dangerous.

Truth: Dissociation is a defense mechanism. It does not inherently cause someone to become more dangerous.

Myth: Dissociation is when someone has multiple personalities.

Truth: Only dissociative identity disorder involves the existence of multiple identities.

Understanding the Link Between Dissociation and Anxiety

Anxiety and dissociation are common co-occurrences. In some cases, anxiety can even be a trigger for such symptoms. This occurs because the body’s fight-or-flight response triggers a need to escape from distress.

In some cases, chronic anxiety can lead to dissociation becoming a habit. This can cause it to become a default response to stress and other similar situations.

Recognizing Symptoms of Dissociation in Daily Life

If you feel disconnected from your body, it could be a symptom of dissociation. However, there are several other potential signs, including:

  • Feeling like the world is not quite real
  • Having gaps in memory during stressful periods
  • Difficulty concentrating and experiencing a mental “fog”
  • Numbness or feeling cut off from emotions.

If you feel as though any of these relate to your mood, it may be beneficial to contact a specialist to help you discuss your situation.

Grounding Techniques for Dissociation

If you believe you are suffering from dissociation, try to use some of the following grounding exercises. They can anchor you in the present moment, reducing the impact of stress on your mental health:

  • Practice deep and focused breathing
  • Perform an activity that engages your senses
  • Notice and name five things you can perceive for each bodily sense
  • Establish a safe physical space where you can feel grounded

Any of these can interrupt dissociation and start to bring you back to a healthier mindset. If you find they are not working for you for any reason, though, it may be time to prioritize professional help.

Choosing the Right Therapist for Your Needs

Managing dissociation and anxiety is an independent and important journey. It demands your understanding, patience, and a willingness to engage in therapy. It can help to learn mindfulness, as well as grounding techniques for dissociation that can help keep you in a healthier mindset. Working with an expert can help you prevent dissociation, manage the existing symptoms, and assist you in staying in the present moment.

If you have more questions, consider visiting Advanced Behavioral Health in Manhattan. Our specialists have expertise with dissociation and anxiety, and we can help get you on the right track, starting you on the road to a better life.

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