What is Dissociation?


Dissociation is:


a natural, built-in survival response to unbearable or traumatic events

an everyday, necessary coping mechanism


Dissociation exists to protect us and make our lives better


However, Dissociative Responses and Effects can also interfere with and complicate our lives in ways that do not serve our best interests, and which prevent us from living in ways that we find fulfilling, joyful, and meaningful.

  • Helpful Dissociation protects us, enables us to function during a crisis, and allows us to forget trauma.
  • Harmful Dissociation disconnects us from unresolved pain, trauma, secrets and other aspects of life that we find unbearable. When not recognized, understood, and healed, Dissociated experiences and feelings can be toxic emotionally and spiritually, spilling out in ways that hurt us or otherwise disrupt our lives, as well as making us over-reactive, uncontrollable, and potentially harmful to ourselves and others. Every day examples include: going on an eating binge to control emotions; taking out frustrations on your child; denying being angry at someone, then expressing your anger through snide comments that affect the relationship; or even dumping trash by a river instead of properly disposing of it.


Dissociative Survival Function

Most of us are familiar with the Fight or Flight Response, and how it is an instinctive survival function of humans and many other life forms.

Fight = stickFiguresFighting

Flight = stickFigure-Flight


There’s also a 3rd response – the Freeze Response.

Like animals, when you can’t fight and you can’t run, you freeze.

Freeze = stickFigure-Freeze     = “Play Dead”

Freeze = Disconnect = Dissociate


Beyond the physical paralysis of the freeze response described above, humans can freeze individual aspects of the traumatic and/or life-threatening experience. A warrior being oblivious to battle wounds until safety is reached, or someone forgetting the moments during and before a bad car accident are common forms of our freeze response.


This human freeze response is highly evolved – just as when our can body freezes in position, our heart and mind may also freeze by locking away aspects of the traumatic experience – whatever part severely threatens our sense of safety or well-being. Sometimes, the entire memory of the experience is unbearable, causing it to be disconnected completely from our conscious awareness. Other times, only certain details like sights, sounds, or smells are disconnected. This human form of the freeze/disconnect response is what is most commonly meant by the term Dissociation.


When a person freezes by locking away aspects of an experience, memory functions differently. Like a photo or a movie paused in freeze-frame, details are frozen in place, exactly as they were at the moment the freeze occurred.  The disconnected/locked away memories can actually retain all the details involved in the dissociated experience – smells, emotional content, physical sensations, sounds, etc.


Dissociation happens at a core survival level and is different from a state of extreme denial. Denial is within the scope of our conscious awareness. Dissociation, however, like breathing, is a deeper imperative. Whether in its’ everyday form or as a response to extreme trauma, dissociation is physically processed in our brains differently than denial. Basically, a memory we are in denial about will be stored fairly close to the surface, while a memory we have dissociated will be locked away in our sub-conscious.