What can dissociation teach us about the modern day?

Disclaimer: In this article, transient dissociation is used in a generalised sense and as a standalone experience. I am not referring to the trauma-specific symptoms of DID or DDD. 

It would come on suddenly. I could be walking along the road thinking all sorts of to-do list things, and then, out of nowhere, my innate belief that these feet are mine would be thrown into crisis. My vision would blur, and my balance would be like I was sailing a ship through stormy water.

If I was sitting down, it localised in my eyes. I would have to act against a heaviness that felt like something was pulling me downwards. My mind would start to spin, and I could not take in any more information from the outside world. I repeatedly blinked during these episodes and envisioned my eyes as akin to two hands holding onto a cliff edge.

Apparently, these episodes of blinding dizziness were actually transient dissociations, and they are very common. While only 2% of the world’s population are diagnosed with depersonalisation-derealisation disorder or DDD (if there were ever a diagnostic onomatopoeia, it is that) transient dissociation occurs in about half of the world’s population.

What is transient dissociation?
Transient dissociation occurs when someone feels as though the continuity between things has come undone. Those things tend to revolve around one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The disconnect then manifests as a ‘split’ between one’s body, mind and surroundings. In the story above, the dissociative dimension would be that I lost the feeling that my mind and feet are connected. However, I would rationally know that they are connected. So, that dissociation would then trigger a subsequent over-analysing of how I move my feet, which would create a sense of bodily alienation and lead to panic. It is akin to what happens when you repeat a word too many times.

However, dissociation is not always accompanied by terror. For some, it invites nothing more than a kind of existential romanticism. In its milder forms, it can feel like you are watching your life from afar or as though it is a movie. Poignantly, transient dissociative episodes are a normal phenomenon during childhood. The belief that ‘this body is mine’ is something we learn during our developmental years. Thus, breaks in that link are far more frequent when the belief is not so ingrained. It is only when it returns as an adult that it can acquire its uncanny and frightening dimension.

Dissociation as an alienation effect
Famous Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing argued that partial depersonalisation and dissociation are normal, even inevitable,consequences of 20th-century alienation. For Laing, most relationships are built on a kind of depersonalisation insofar as we do not acknowledge every human we interact with as who they are, but rather as another actor in a larger machine.

 However, when that disconnect is directed inwards – such that an element of someone’s own self rather than a piece of their reality becomes strange to them – then they could be in a transient dissociation. Essentially, we become alienated from ourselves, as if we were also strangers on the street.

 And how does it relate to our modern world?
I cannot help but think the increase in dissociative experiences is tied up with our ever-evolving online identities and theiremphasis on self-reference. Firstly, countless studies show that excessive internet, virtual reality or social media use drastically increases your likelihood of experiencing a dissociation. For example, our image-in-the-mirror enables us to perceive ourselves through someone else’s eyes. But now, we have this image-in-the-screen, void of any corporality, doing the same. Secondly, we are quite literally connecting with people via parts of a machine.

 Thirdly, frequent transient dissociation is correlated with perfectionism and is often provoked by the fear that one has made a mistake. Those mistakes tend to take the form of not fully knowing ourselves or being in control of how others perceive us. The self-reference and self-awareness that saturates social media could well be a breeding ground for these kinds of anxieties.

Now what?
However, this is not to say that we should all just jump ship; there is plenty to be said about why our technology is a wonderful thing. But I think if my dissociative experiences taught me anything, it is to lean into the idea that you do not need to know who you are, which is an idea that online personas tend to discourage. Inconsistency doesn’t make for great branding, but we are not brands.

 Instead, try to lean into the idea that our identity will always be in flux, and links will sometimes need to be broken. I think I repeatedly experienced these episodes because that notion – that I can never really be certain of anything at all – was precisely what I needed to learn.

Written by Molly Fitz