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mental health

Dissociating Isn't the Same Thing as Zoning Out

There's a lot of confusion over what the term means—even among psychologists.

by Kate Mooney
06 December 2019, 4:20am

Westend61 / Getty

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

To decipher the latest discourse to hit your timeline, you may need a copy of the DSM-V. As it becomes more socially acceptable to go to therapy (and talk about going to therapy), clinical terms—panic attack, trigger, PTSD—are making their way into the vernacular. Lately, people have been saying they’re “dissociating” to describe a range of experiences, including things like zoning out at the dentist, shutting down mentally after reading something cringey, and slipping into a trance-like state while listening to music. Not everybody knows how to spell the term, or pronounce it (it’s dis-sociate, not dis-A-sociate!); some are perplexed by what it means, while others are critical of how people use it, readily outing imposters.

Further fogging up the dis-course, writer Emmeline Cline recently published an essay on BuzzFeed in which she called dissociating a “new trend in feminism,” citing Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character in Fleabag as the poster woman for a new performative nihilism. Cline suggests that by dissociating—instead of throwing a fit (like Girls’ Hannah Horvath would) or leaning in (like a #girlboss stymied by systemic sexism would)—the wounded woman becomes more palatable: “the cool girl or chill girl’s cousin.”

While it’s certainly en vogue to hint at your existential despair in a deadpan, detached tone, rather than rant or wallow earnestly—especially among the sad girls of the internet—Cline’s suggestion that the act of dissociating is a choice (“Most girls learn to dissociate early,” she writes), or indicates a new type of feminism, feels overblown. But the essay and the Twitter discourse do reveal that some people need clarification on what the hell this word actually means, what it’s like to experience it, and whether talking glibly about mental health—or even “performing” it—is inherently a bad thing.

Dissociation is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as an experience of mental detachment, or disconnection between the mind and body, an unconscious coping mechanism that typically develops in response to trauma. When it’s at its most severe, the person dissociating could experience amnesia, loss of identity, and an inability to recognize themselves or their surroundings.

According to Bethany Brand, a clinical psychologist and expert in trauma and dissociative disorders, “All of us dissociate to some extent.” The problem, she said, is that “there is confusion over what that means”—even among psychologists.

Brand said dissociation is best understood as a continuum of experiences. At one end, there is “non-pathological dissociation”—say, “highway hypnosis,” where you’re driving and maybe miss your exit because your brain’s on autopilot, or a runner’s high, where you enter a flow state in which you’ve detached from bodily pain. At the other end are more troubling occurrences, such as memory gaps, or "depersonalization-derealization" (a feeling of observing yourself outside of your body, or existing in a dreamlike state). People diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID) might even “split” into distinct personality states (this used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder).

Dissociative symptoms often accompany anxiety disorders. During panic attacks, people may experience derealization, where the world around them appears foggy, or surreal. The most severe expressions of dissociation stem from trauma. Victims of sexual assault might have an out-of-body experience and see themselves in the corner of the room or floating above themselves (either during the assault or when recalling it later); children who experience abuse learn to “numb themselves emotionally and physically” to block out painful memories—essentially, to survive what’s happening to them, Brand explained. Dissociation may develop as an adaptive technique to cope with severe distress, but can also become a conditioned habit that some carry with them into adulthood, where it can present a wide range of problems, from difficulty staying present enough to function on a daily basis, to an inability to truly experience one’s emotions.

So, how do you know if you’re actually dissociating, or you’re just spacey? During diagnosis, people are typically asked to describe their symptoms, and sometimes take a Dissociative Experiences Scale, a questionnaire that presents a range of dissociative experiences and asks if and how often the person experiences them. Brand said that a good indication that there’s a problem is when the behavior interferes with daily functioning (think: the difference between occasionally staring off into space and losing track of time, versus looking in the mirror and not recognizing yourself).

A 34-year-old freelance artist, who asked to remain anonymous, said they have complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) resulting from emotional abuse during childhood. For them, they said, dissociating means, “Life goes on as normal, but I cease to have a record of it.” Their executive function deteriorates, and they lose memories of hours, days, weeks, even months, but won’t realize it until they “come back” to consciousness. “Usually it starts with a trigger relating to past trauma,” they said. “Memory takes on a dreamlike quality, and I question everything I recall. My existence feels less and less real.”

In cases like this, treatment involves “fostering emotional reconnection to one’s self,” according to Marlene Steinberg, a psychiatrist and researcher of dissociative disorders, and author of The Stranger in the Mirror: Dissociation—The Hidden Epidemic. “In the process of this psychotherapy, people become aware of the triggers for the development of their dissociation, learn to distinguish past stressors from present options, and learn constructive non-dissociative ways of coping with stress, fostering healing of previously disowned/disconnected authentic feelings and/or senses of self.”

Brand believes that proliferation of the term is a good sign, indicating that more mental health practitioners are being trained in the effects of trauma.“Now that’s rippling out into the media, and more people are hearing the word,” she said. But, according to Brand, saying it too casually, just to describe “tuning out because you don’t want to think about something,” is probably an inaccurate usage, and could be dismissive of people who suffer from real trauma and DID.

If you’re one of the skeptics who suspects folks are “dissociating” because it sounds edgy or cool, or they want to be performative about their mental health, the earnest teens of TikTok might change your mind. Over on the good app, young people are making videos that capture what dissociation feels like to them—literally, performing dissociation—but they aren’t so much acting as recreating their lived experiences.

Cora Lanzo, an 18-year-old high school senior who runs the TikTok account @Cloroxguzzler, said that she’s been diagnosed with PTSD and dissociates on a daily basis. “It usually leads me to have panic attacks and very high anxiety. It causes problems with focus, too,” she said.

In one video, Lanzo tells the camera, “Hey yo, dissociation check!” and then proceeds to glaze over as her eyes dart around the room. In another video, she asks her followers if they know that feeling where “you’re like a soul floating around in a vessel that’s just walking and talking to people, and you’re like, what the hell is this, is this real life, is everybody else feeling this way or am I just fucking crazy? You’re just there, but your mind feels completely separate from your body?”

“Think of it like this: you’re walking to a destination and conscious, then all of a sudden you’re at the destination,” she told VICE. “You have no idea how you got there… Your mind completely shuts off in a way. You lose touch with reality for periods of time.”

Tori (@frosttthesnowman), an 18-year-old college freshman who has anxiety and ADD, said that when she dissociates, she zones out and becomes non-present—but doesn’t realize she’s doing it until she becomes present again. “When you snap out of it, it feels like someone’s pressed the play button on the remote, and I’ll usually have to ask whomever was talking to repeat what they said,” she said.

“In 2019, escaping isn’t just something you do for fun; it’s a survival tactic at a time where the world feels so inescapably stressful and out of control,” Anna Silman wrote in a recent New York magazine article about the popularity of ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic that “numbs your body and makes you feel apart from your environment—like you’re watching your own life instead of living it.” So many of us, whether actually diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, (or simply overwhelmed by the horrors on our social media feeds, and unable to afford therapy) are in search of ways to get out of our heads, or at least off of our phones. It makes sense that an ability to seamlessly tune out under duress, like ordering a temporary lobotomy on demand, would appeal—almost a covetable skill, like being good at meditation or mindfulness.

Ideally, more conversation around dissociation will lead to greater awareness of the condition—and, hopefully, greater sensitivity of the language we use to describe it, or experiences that feel something like it. In the meantime, unless you’ve been diagnosed by a clinician, or you’re literally doing ketamine, maybe just say you’re spacing out.

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Dissociation