Dissociation occurs when we disconnect with ourselves or the environment around us. Most times, people associate dissociation with moments when people are having a trauma response and aren’t present in their body. They may be able to have a full conversation, even though they cannot remember it. Others report feeling like they were watching their body.
Dissociation is the nervous system’s response to threat. Triggers in the environment that tie to a past trauma can cause the nervous system to activate and put the body in a dissociated state.
Trauma isn’t the only cause of dissociation though. Sometimes, the body is simply too overwhelmed by the environment and the nervous system becomes activated. This happens with autistic individuals, such as when they become over-stimulated by an environment (I’ve also written about it in an essay “The Dissociated Performance State”).
Dissociation activated by the nervous system is an involuntary state. The nervous system takes over and the individual has little control, or sometimes even awareness that it is happening. This form of dissociation can be unsettling and not ideal.
However, when dissociation is voluntary, it can be used as a tool. Sometimes, some distance from the environment or the emotions within us is helpful.
This may sound contradictory coming from a therapist who advocates feeling our emotions and understanding our needs, but there is a time and place for everything. It is not always the appropriate time or place to feel everything and be hyper-connected to the world around us.
For example, I choose to attend family gatherings that celebrate holidays. I want to be around my family. However, there is one family member who monopolizes conversation and shares negative news and facts incessantly. Even though multiple family members, myself included, have tried to speak with this person about their behavior, it does not improve. Thus, I limit my time with them to a few holiday gatherings. When we are all at the dinner table and they launch into yet another monologue about all of the negative things they heard on the news, I intentionally disassociate. I retreat into my imaginative mind and place myself in a different world. It is a wonderful temporary tool to deal with a rare, but annoying circumstance.
Another example of when we can use disassociation is when we do not want our emotions to overwhelm us. For example, if you receive upsetting news at the beginning of the work day, you may want to dissociate from the associated feelings so that you can make it through the work day. For me, I find dissociation helpful prior to going to sleep. When I am preparing for bed, I do not want to think about all of the intense, emotional things of the day.
One time, I was told that some family members had COVID in the afternoon. My friend called just as I was going to bed and wanted to hear how each family member was doing and talk about what support they needed. While this was well intended, it was not the appropriate time for me. It made everything seem very real and very sad, which activated my mind and made it difficult to fall asleep. Sometimes we need to keep things at a distance until it is the right time to effectively process them.
Some may argue that a word such as “disconnected” or “detached” may be more appropriate than “dissociate” in these instances. I’m fine with other people’s preferences, but I prefer the word disassociate because I am taking intentional space from something. It’s a tool that should be used with discernment (for a life lived in a constant state of dissociation would not be ideal), but can help get us through short, challenging moments.
While every human has access to this tool, I labeled it as an autistic tool because autistics have more experience with involuntary dissociation due to overwhelm in environments. We can reclaim some of our power by learning to use it voluntarily. We may be even able to prevent involuntary dissociation (which is far more severing from the self) if we are able to employ voluntary dissociation first.
We can also take advantage of our unique neurotype and use our brain’s functioning in our favor. We can retreat into our imaginative minds when it serves us.
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