Dissociation Image courtesy of Super OfficeOpens in new window

Dissociation involves a “disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. 519).

In usual experience, people feel senses of wholeness, continuity, and identity. In dissociation, psychological processes become isolated from one another. A foundation for integrated experience is memory, and dissociation often (but not always) includes memory loss (Steinberg, 1994).

In healthy functioning, people recall past experiences and recognize friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. Memory aids people in reacting to events and in planning for the future.

When a major disruption in memory is present with no clear physical cause, an individual may be suffering from a dissociative disorderOpens in new window.

Several types of dissociative disorders have been identified by the American Psychiatric AssociationOpens in new window, the primary organization in the United States that categorizes and describes mental disorders.

The disorders are dissociative amnesiaOpens in new window, dissociative fugueOpens in new window, dissociative identity disorderOpens in new window, depersonalization disorderOpens in new window, and dissociative disorder not otherwise specifiedOpens in new window.

Dissociation is a common symptom of the stress disorders: acute stress disorderOpens in new window and posttraumatic stress disorderOpens in new window. As Cameron (1963) described, dissociation is a defense mechanismOpens in new window that may be implemented when experiencing trauma. Dissociation is a way to hold off the acknowledgment of the traumatic experience until the individual is ready to accept it and integrate it into the self.

Dissociation does not necessarily imply pathology. Dissociation is an accepted occurrence during some religious activities and some cultural practices in some cultures. For instance, trance states and possession by a spirit or spirits may be viewed as dissociative states.

  1. Stout, M. (2002). The myth of sanity: Divided consciousness and the promise of awareness. New York: Penguin.
  2. American Psychiatric Assocition. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.
  3. Cameron, N. (1963). Personality development and psychopathology. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
  4. Foote, B., Smolin, Y., Kaplan, M., Legatt, M.E., & Lipschitz, D. (2006). Prevalence of dissociative disorders in psychiatric outpatients. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163, 623 – 629.
  5. Steinberg, M. (1994). Systematizing dissociation: Symptomatology and diagnostic assessment. In D. Spiegel (Ed.), Dissociation: Culture, mind, and body (pp. 59 – 88). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.