What is Dissociation? Does it Help or Hurt in Bipolar Disorder?

July 22, 2014 Natasha Tracy

I have commented in my writings that, sometimes, I use dissociation as a coping technique. Now, I’m not saying this is the best thing to do nor am I suggesting that it’s professional-recommended, I’m just saying it’s what I do to get through the day at times.

So, people have asked me, what is dissociation? Does dissociation help or hurt someone with bipolar disorder?

What is Dissociation?

According to, the psychiatric definition of dissociation is, “the splitting off of a group of mental processes from the main body of consciousness, as in amnesia or certain forms of hysteria.”

Well, that doesn’t sound like something you would want.

My definition of dissociation is simply a removal of mind from the body. Your body is still there and going through the motions (and your brain, being part of your body is there too) but your mind is in some padded room somewhere detached from what is going on.

Is Dissociation Normal?

Actually, yes, it is. You know when you drive to work, or the grocery store, or someplace you’ve been a thousand times and you get there and you don’t remember a thing about the drive? That’s dissociation for you. Your mind left your body and your body functioned without your consciousness really noticing. That’s normal, run-of-the-mill dissociation at work.

When is Dissociation Helpful?

Dissociation is something that happens to everyone, but is initiating dissociation on purpose helpful or hurtful in bipolar disorder?

Similarly, when I talk in front of crowds something similar can happen. My mind, you see, is nervous, so it retreats into some corner while my body takes over and makes me seem confident and, perhaps, nigh on invincible. I’d say dissociation is very helpful then.

And, essentially, dissociation can be helpful whenever we’re overwhelmed to the point of incapacitation. This could be because of something horrible – like abuse – or something we just can’t handle like a social situation (if you suffer from social phobia). (People often use alcohol to “loosen them up,” but it actually increases dissociation as well.)

My dissociation can even happen when I’m just writing. I have to dissociate from the pain of depression and bipolar disorder in order to be an effective writer and speaker. If I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t produce what I need to.

In short, dissociation gets us through things that we can’t get ourselves through.

When is Dissociation Harmful?

Unfortunately, dissociation can be harmful too. In the examples in the psychiatric definition of amnesia or hysteria, dissociation is harmful. Dissociation is harmful when we’re not in control of it. When we slip into a dissociative state without our consent and can’t get out of it, that’s when dissociation is harmful.

(Note, dissociative identity disorder is a perfect example of the harm that severe dissociation can cause when we can’t control it.)

Is Dissociation Useful in Bipolar?

I would say, yes, for all the above stated reasons and I would suggest that everyone does it to some degree without even thinking about it. But, if you want to split yourself off from your body consciously, then you have to understand the mind-brain split. You have to understand that your mind is not your brain or your body and you have to be able to live inside your mind while your body goes to work and does whatever it needs to do. You then have to be able to re-enter your body when that’s important too (such as having a conversation with a loved one).

Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy are all ways of gaining insight on how your brain and mind are split. For more on this, you’ll have to wait for another blog post.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or Google+ or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at Bipolar Burble, her blog.

Tags: dissociation

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2014, July 22). What is Dissociation? Does it Help or Hurt in Bipolar Disorder?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

March, 6 2016 at 6:56 am

I tend to dissociate when I have to force myself to do something I absolutely don't want to do or I feel overwhelmed especially when I'm depressed.
I know exercise is good for me but I hate it. Lately a friend had been bugging me to go swimming with her. Swimming is easier when you're overweight like me so I've been going but I'm extremely embarrassed by how I look so I dissociate to cope with the shame.
Lately I went to a retirement party for someone I knew back in the '80's. I only knew 4 others there besides myself. All but one sat at a different table. I barely spoke two words all night. I have social anxiety. My life is very uneventful and I painfully struggle with something to come up with to talk about. The music was also overwhelmingly loud. I desperately wanted to go home but I forced myself to stay. My body was there but my mind went somewhere else
I've been so stressed out and frustrated trying to use our new complex computer accounting program at work. I'm terrified I'm goint to lose my job because I keep making so many mistakes. In order to cope and not have a complete melt down or call in sick over and over again I dissociate in order to get my work done
I've been so depressed lately it's almost impossible to get out of bed. My home is a complete and utter mess. My friend called and wanted me to go to a play with her, a comedy she said. I thought that would be good for me so I mustered up the strength to make myself look presentable and go but when I got there I felt nothing, no emotion, nothing. It felt like I was in a dream, it was totally unreal. Again my body was there but I was not

January, 9 2015 at 7:17 am

I have a tendency to over spend at times when I dissociate myself from what ever is going on around me as soon as I dissociate I feel much better almost calmer sometimes I can think clearly and I put plans and actions into place other times I go into a downwards spiral, there's been times when I've almost messed up my education by almost dropping out. I love the feeling of not feeling anything and not thinking anything but if I were to write something whilst I'm like this (like now) my words are jumbled and might not make any sense.

August, 2 2014 at 6:28 am

Hi Natasha. I didn't know what the term was back then, but I went through a large part of my college years like this. I'll often dissociate even now, to the point where I fail to identify as the person I am. I don't see why I have to be restricted by my name. I don't see why I have to be this person that everybody remembers me being. I may have done things I'm not proud of in the past, but I can't go on living in a constant state of anxiety because of the past.
I like to think of dissociation from my identity as a break from dealing with mental illness.

July, 30 2014 at 1:38 am

I can dissociate for days at a time, and only realise later that I wasn't present simply by a complete lack of memory. Until I go into another dissociative state, and then I'm able to fill in the gaps a bit, as it were.
Dissociating from stressful situations is something I learned very young. I'm still learning how to control it, but one of the most effective methods I've come across is spending time with animals. They always live in the moment.

Kathleen Brannon
July, 24 2014 at 5:18 pm

I wonder if doing it deliberately as a coping tool increases your threshold for dissociation though, so you're more likely to experience the "bad" kind when overwhelmed. I dissociate all the time, just called it daydreaming or "spacing off" and it does get me through boring or scary situations. Also is where my creative ideas germinate.
But I had a really bad episode of severe dissociation where I lost consciousness of my actions and all memory of the 3 hours I spent in the ER. They said could have been a seizure, a med reaction ... but I think it was involuntary dissociation due to an extremely stressful life situation.
I wonder if that would have happened if I didn't already have so much consensual dissociation under my belt.

charles mistretta
July, 24 2014 at 3:05 am

Dissociation will set you free - for a little while. I use it thru out the day to do menial task I'd rather not think about. It works! Thank you for a word that can be used to manipulate a concept. (I don't think therefore I am~)
While in a meeting of my peers I mentioned I'd rather not think, knowing it was more efficient to behave this way. The group reaction was not comfortable, however I believe a few got the idea.
Dissociation may become a tool for those with to much on their minds and no way to manage mental babble. BTW people with tremendous amounts of responsibility use it all the time for personal space and probably never defined it.
Thank you.

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