Understanding Dissociation: When Emotions Become Unbearable

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Some people find it difficult to respond appropriately to highly emotional thoughts, feelings, or situations. The symptoms of certain mental health disorders, including dissociative identity disorder (DID), may cause people to experience dissociative events when they feel overwhelmed by positive or negative emotions. According to Cureus, "There are several conditions found to be associated with [DID], including depression, self-harm, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorder, borderline personality disorder or anxiety, and conversion or somatoform disorder." Understanding dissociation and how it affects mental health reduces the risk of relapse. Pathways Recovery Center educates clients and their families about the realities of treating substance use disorder (SUD) and co-occurring dissociative symptoms or conditions, including DID. 

What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder?

According to the previously mentioned article in Cureus, "Dissociative identity disorder (DID), or dissociative personality disorder, is the presence of at least two varied personalities in one person." Psychiatrists are divided on the exact cause and nature of DID. However, most people with DID experience extreme and repeated dissociative events.

The side effects of DID vary significantly from person to person, influenced by underlying trauma and life stressors. People with DID experience many distressing symptoms, including: 

  • Dissociative events involving blackouts, time loss, or amnesia 
  • Feeling as if the world or aspects of everyday life are unreal 
  • A sense of being disconnected from oneself 
  • Extreme mood swings and changes in temperament

Often the symptoms are triggered or worsened by stressful events or moments of high emotion. According to the journal Psychiatry, some prominent researchers "characterized DID as a disorder of extreme stress, possibly a form of complex PTSD, due to prolonged, repeated trauma." The symptoms of DID can manifest at any time for individuals diagnosed with the disorder. However, the most common triggers include severe emotional or physical trauma, such as child abuse and physical or sexual assault.  

Why Do I Disconnect? Understanding Dissociation

Dissociation often feels like disconnecting from the present moment. Diagnosing DID is challenging because it is incredibly rare and shares some symptoms with other disorders. According to Dissociative Identity Disorder by Paroma Mitra and Ankit Jain, "[P]atients with DID often present with symptoms of dissociation and amnesia, which are also seen in patients with borderline personality disorder." 

Multiple mental health disorders feature dissociation as a possible symptom, including: 

  • PTSD
  • Acute stress disorder 
  • Depression 
  • Anxiety disorders 
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder (BD)

Individuals in recovery may dissociate for different reasons. However, in many cases feeling emotionally overwhelmed and not having the tools to cope cause people to dissociate from the moment. Dissociation is a protective mechanism meant used by the brain to reduce the adverse effects of physical or emotional distress. People in recovery can learn to manage their condition and reduce instances of dissociation.

Heightened Emotions and Understanding Dissociation

Dissociation generally happens when people with a low-stress threshold or history of trauma experience heightened emotions. Fear, excitement, and even extreme pleasure can cause people to feel emotionally overwhelmed to the point where they shut down and enter a dissociative state. However, in most instances, dissociation is a protective measure caused by negative emotions or the anticipation of negative emotions. 

Dissociative events can affect memory, self-perception, and a person's sense of identity. According to the journal Emotion, "Dissociative experiences range from common experiences of highway hypnosis (e.g., not aware of time passage on a long trip) or absorption (e.g., watching a movie or looking at a beautiful sunset) to more pathological states." In addition, "severe stress is also associated with transient dissociation (e.g., looking as if through a fog, altered time perception, feeling "spaced out," etc.) even in nonpathological populations."

When to Get Help

Not everyone who experiences dissociative events requires mental health treatment. Everyday life is full of tiny moments of dissociation, including daydreaming. However, clinical dissociative disorders disrupt people's lives and cause severe distress. Dissociation identity disorder, PTSD, and other conditions often require long-term treatment. 

People concerned about dissociative events should speak with their doctor or care team. Early intervention reduces the risk of developing additional disorders. Programs at Pathways Recovery Center provide structure and a safe space where clients can learn to control their emotional and behavioral responses to stressors. 

How Pathways Recovery Helps With Understanding Dissociation

Dissociation affects everyone differently and often decreases a person's ability to function. The care team tailors treatment services to the needs of each client. Dissociation can also severely impact personal relationships and affect the quality of life for individuals in recovery.

According to the previously mentioned publication by Paroma Mitra and Ankit Jain, "Some treatment approaches for dissociative identity disorder include basic structures from work with personality disorders in a three-pronged approach:

  • Establishing safety, stabilization, and symptom reduction;
  • Confronting, working through, and integrating traumatic memories
  • Identity integration and rehabilitation."

Pathways Recovery Center uses integrative and personalized care to help clients reintegrate their identity while recovering from SUD and other co-occurring conditions. Understanding dissociation allows clients to heal more quickly. The care team guides clients through learning to identify, analyze, and process emotions to make them manageable and reduce stressors. People in recovery heal more effectively when they understand how their thoughts and beliefs impact their behaviors. Knowing the cause and effect of trauma responses also helps individuals with DID feel more confident in managing their condition during recovery. 

Some people lack the skills to cope with certain emotional situations. Feeling overwhelmed by negative thoughts, beliefs, or situations may cause people with a history of trauma to experience dissociative events. In rare cases, dissociative identity disorder may develop. DID is characterized by the emergence of two or more distinct personalities triggered by stress or other factors. Available treatments for SUD and co-occurring DID include psychotherapy and integrative care. Pathways Recovery Center understands how disorienting it can be to experience frequent dissociative events. The care team collaborates with clients and their families to create a personalized care plan. To learn more about our programs and how we can help, call our office today at (888) 771-0966.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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