Dissociation: Are You Too Forgetful?

L Weber Garrison, PhD
5 min readJun 20, 2022

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Are you worried that you may be too forgetful? Wondering if your brain is broken?

We all experience some degree of dissociation on a daily basis. Dissociation is an adaptive, protective function, and a natural process of the brain that we all use much of the time. It has been found that 80–90% of individuals report dissociative symptoms at least some of the time (Bruce, 2007). It has also been identified that dissociation could be divided into at least two distinct categories: “detachment” and “compartmentalization.” These categories have different definitions, mechanisms, and treatment implications (Brown, 2008).

The Role of Trauma
Dissociation is also a significant element of developmental trauma (Developmental Trauma Disorder or DTD) that has severe consequences in the lives of the adults that suffer traumatization in childhood. In this sense, it plays an important role in terms of detachment in the forms of depersonalization and derealization, and in compartmentalization, that of fragmentation of the personality and amnesia. The challenge we face in understanding these differences is the umbrella labeling of various manifestations of the dissociative state.

The Chasm of an Errant Diagnosis
A label of having Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID, could potentially be damaging to a person who is seeking help and a better sense of self-awareness. And, unfortunately, the number of individuals diagnosed with dissociative disorder has been increasing exponentially. In this sense, pathologizing dissociation may cause unnecessary fear and further fragmentation given the ‘diagnosis’ that a person has been labeled with.
Conversely, normalizing some dissociative experiences — and understanding the more normal aspects of our brains simply needing a break — may help some people remain present and more integrated.

Phases
Our brain is constantly working and for most of us, simply staying present and focused is extremely demanding. Like any part of our being, the brain needs some breaks. Dissociation is a very natural way to preserve energy and thus, provide those breaks.

Dissociation takes on many forms, though, from very short-lived mental breaks to more permanent withdrawal; from disconnecting from the movie you might be watching, to disconnecting from your emotions; from forgetting where you parked your car, to forgetting where the years of your life were spent.

Memory and Dissociation
Contextually, dissociation is normally equated with repressed and/or forgotten memories. Memory is another protective and adaptive strategy that is often misunderstood and sometimes even grossly misjudged. In reality, every time we remember something, our brain is making up a large percentage of the “memory.” A key factor to note is that our brain is designed to store and memorize what it considers important for our survival and for adapting to the environment we live in.
If our system does not store, or if it “dissociates” an event, could that also be a protective maneuver? Indeed, it can.

Dissociated Elements
Dissociation is also typically the result of the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). This system is in charge of the resting and digesting functions of the body and it is one of the branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that basically undoes the work of the sympathetic branch.

If we get distracted and disengaged under ordinary circumstances, our PSNS will become activated and we will miss parts of what’s going on. That could likewise be considered dissociation.

Under atypical circumstances, after a stressful situation for example, the PSNS produces endogenous opioids as a form of analgesia in order to negate some of the hyperactivation caused by the sympathetic branch. This passive defense response causes changes in cerebral blood flow and contributes to perceptual disturbances (depersonalization and derealization), impairments on memory retrieval and encoding, and failure on engagement. All of these responses are included within the clinical definitions of dissociation.

The different manifestations of dissociation happen for a reason, and we may discover how to benefit from them by “intervening” when they occur. So, even though the ANS is supposed to act without consciousness, intentional mediation of some of our automatic functions can indeed improve our wellbeing. Heart rate variability (HRV) for example is something we can control with the quality of our thoughts.

Dissociating: Memories
The brain stores the parts of the memories that it considers vital and essentially dismisses the rest.
In the case of extreme stress, fear, or traumatization, dissociating memories may occur because the brain is either:
- out of power and unable to encode the information of the event;
- considers that they could jeopardize survival and stores them in a different place;
- is busy keeping the person stable and therefore considers it unnecessary to store the memory in an accessible way.

Dissociating: Emotions
It is theorized that dissociation is caused by the need to avoid potentially overstimulating emotional information, especially negative emotions, to protect a fragile psyche. This manifestation can occur after traumatization or can be created as a defense through repetition. Avoiding emotions, however, can become habituated (and become an automatic response) and as such, we can lose the capacity to experience both negative and positive emotions.

Dissociating: The body
Recall that dissociation is a hardwired protective strategy. Some people find that having dissociative experiences such as depersonalization and derealization, through the use of drugs, for example, triggers fear and at times, traumatic. Meditators and yogis intentionally train to dissociate as a way to become more enlightened or awakened, yet they do not experience trauma because of doing so. The key here is the emotion of fear. Without fear, depersonalization is a way to access the ‘knowingness’ that we are more than just our bodies. We can enhance our well-being and our life when we can gain control over a protective set of survival mechanisms. Intentional dissociation offers a healthier solution than self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.

Crossing the Chasm
In the same way, the line between healthy dissociation and a pathological expression is the awareness of control. Even in the case of dissociative memories, where we are not clearly in control of what to remember and what to forget, forgetting can be healthy, adaptive, and advantageous. In essence, it is how we instruct our brain with regard to what is important and what could be ignored.

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L Weber Garrison, PhD

Laura Weber Garrison, Ph.D., is a retreat facilitator, educator, and holistic health therapist. www.BetterWellnessNaturally.com