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  • Writer's pictureSpring Berriman

Dissociation vs Disassociation: Critical Distinctions in Clinical and Social Settings

Updated: Jun 10

dissociation vs disassociation

Dissociation and disassociation are often used interchangeably. However, the terms represent distinct concepts with unique implications. This article outlines the key differences between both conditions and emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between dissociation vs disassociation in psychological and social contexts.


What is dissociation?  


Dissociation is a psychological condition where an individual experiences a disconnection or lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, sense of identity, or perceptions. 


This often emerges as a defense mechanism against trauma or severe stress. For example, individuals involved in a serious car accident may struggle to recall the events of the crash. Their mind will dissociate to protect them from the emotional trauma of the experience.


Another example of dissociation can be as simple as “checking out” during an argument, or feeling like you’re watching something happen rather than being in your body. It’s important to understand that this is a coping mechanism and isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing. 


Dissociation can affect anyone but is prevalent in individuals with a history of trauma, particularly during childhood. It is also commonly discussed regarding dissociative disorders, including dissociative amnesia, dissociative identity disorder (DID), and depersonalization/derealization disorder (DPDR). 


What is disassociation? 


Disassociation refers to the act of distancing oneself from a group, idea, or identity. It is more about social or ideological separation rather than psychological.


It is a conscious choice to sever ties or reject association with specific social, ideological, or cultural groups. For example, if someone says they "disassociate" from a political group, they are expressing a desire not to be linked to that group's ideologies or actions. 


Disassociation can affect anyone who disagrees with the prevailing norms or values of their social or cultural environment.


Comparing Dissociation and Disassociation


Dissociation and disassociation both involve a form of separation. However, one relates to involuntary psychological processes (dissociation) from self and the other concerns voluntary social decisions (disassociation) from a group, community, etc. 


Understanding the differences between these concepts is crucial for correct identification and management. Below is a comparison of the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for both conditions. 


Dissociation vs Disassociation - Causes

Discussed in this section are various causes for experiencing dissociation or disassociation. 


Dissociation Causes


Dissociation primarily arises from trauma or stress, allowing individuals to distance or fully disconnect themselves from the emotional impact of traumatic experiences. Possible causes include: 


  • Chronic Stress: Ongoing stress, such as living in a high-conflict household, enduring bullying, or suffering long-term illness, can trigger dissociation.

  • Neglect: Early childhood neglect, where basic emotional and physical needs are not met, can cause children to dissociate from their reality. 

  • Attachment Issues: Insecure or disorganized attachment styles developed in early life can predispose individuals to dissociative disorders.

  • Other Mental Health Disorders: Conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and borderline personality disorder can cause individuals to dissociate. 

  • Traumatic Events: Exposure to abuse, accidents, natural disasters, war, or violence, especially in childhood, often leads to dissociation.


All of the above things we have mentioned here could be considered a traumatic event. Gabor Mate says it best “ Trauma isn’t what happens to you, it’s what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you”. 


Disassociation Causes


Unlike dissociation, disassociation is not typically linked to psychological trauma. Here are common causes:


  • Ideological Differences: Ideological or personal disagreements with a group's beliefs, practices, or behaviours. 

  • Ethical Conflicts: Distancing from groups whose actions conflict with personal ethics.

  • Personal Development: Changes in beliefs, values, or life goals can lead to disassociation from previous affiliations. 

  • Social Influence: Pressure from other social groups or peers can encourage a person to disassociate from certain groups to align more closely with others.

  • Public Relations: Strategic distancing from particular groups, partnerships, or individuals to maintain a certain public image or avoid controversy. 


Dissociation vs Disassociation - Symptoms 

This section discusses the varying symptoms of both conditions. 


Symptoms of Dissociation 


Dissociative symptoms range in severity. Mild symptoms allow the mind to dissociate from immediate stressors or overwhelming situations temporarily. This includes: 


  • Daydreaming or "zoning out": Brief periods of mental disconnection from an activity or environment and self.

  • Memory Lapses: Occasional forgetfulness of recent events or conversations.


Severe dissociative symptoms involve a stronger detachment from physical and emotional experiences, often impacting an individual's ability to function. Examples include: 


  • Dissociative Amnesia: Extensive memory loss, including important personal information and past experiences.

  • Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder (DPDR): Persistent feelings of detachment from one's body or surroundings or experiencing the world as unreal or distorted.

  • Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID): Characterized by the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states. Formerly known as multiple personality disorder. 


Healthy Dissociation 


There can be times when dissociation is okay and/or typical. Have you ever gotten wrapped up in a really great song or book? This can be an example of a healthy form of dissociation. However, there is a fine line between healthy and unhealthy checking out/dissociation.


At our therapist collective, we look at the root cause of dissociation, what’s happening when someone dissociates, the frequency of dissociative experiences, and other factors.


There is no black and white as to what is or is not healthy. Our team takes into consideration each person's unique life experience,  map of reality, and how they see the world around them. 


Symptoms of Disassociation 


Disassociation typically manifests through behavioural symptoms, such as:


  • Social Withdrawal: Actively pulling away from groups or community involvements.

  • Public Renouncement: Openly rejecting or denouncing previously held beliefs or affiliations.

  • Expressed Discontent: Vocalizing dissatisfaction with group ideologies or practices.

  • Shift in Identity: Realigning oneself with different social groups that reflect current values better.


Dissociation vs Disassociation - Treatment 

Due to their varying symptoms, individuals affected by these conditions benefit from tailored treatments. These options are discussed below. 


Treatment for Dissociation 


Effective treatment for dissociation often involves psychotherapy aimed at integrating the dissociated parts of memory or identity.


Techniques such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), internal family systems (IFS) or parts work, havening, psychodynamic therapy, and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) are used to treat and work with dissociation. This is a non exhaustive list and there are many different types of therapies that can use effectively for helping those with dissociation.  .


Medications may also be prescribed to manage associated conditions (e.g., depression) that may be causing patients to dissociate. However, there are currently no drugs to treat dissociation exclusively. 


Disassociation Treatments


Disassociation is not a psychological disorder that requires clinical treatment. However, individuals who experience turmoil resulting from their disassociation or are noticing they are beginning to disassociate  may benefit from counselling.


Why is the distinction important? 


Understanding the differences between dissociation and disassociation is crucial for receiving appropriate support and treatment. 


Dissociation is a mental health issue that can impair an individual's ability to function and affect their day-to-day lives. By contrast, disassociation involves social identity and personal choices, impacting relationships and social belonging and connectedness to the world around you


Confusing these two can lead to miscommunication in clinical settings and misinterpretation in social discussions. 


Treat dissociation and disassociation with our therapist collective


At OntarioTherapists.com, we offer client-centred care for all ages. Our goal is to provide the necessary support and strategies for clients to understand complex conditions like dissociation and effectively manage symptoms.


Our psychotherapists have diverse expertise to suit your needs. Whether you are coping with feelings of isolation after leaving your social circle or need tips to stop "zoning out" in important meetings, our team is here to help! 


Book a free half-hour consultation via video call or phone to learn more. Call us at 647-296-9235 or click here to book your appointment.

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