Dissociation is a mental process where someone disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity. It can be a coping mechanism to deal with traumatic or stressful situations. People often wonder if you can still feel emotions when dissociating. Here is a comprehensive look at the complex relationship between dissociation and emotions.
What is dissociation?
Dissociation is characterized by a sense of detachment or disconnection from something. There are a few different types of dissociation:
- Depersonalization – Feeling detached from one’s body or identity.
- Derealization – Feeling detached from one’s surroundings.
- Dissociative amnesia – Inability to recall important personal information or events.
- Dissociative fugue – Temporary loss of memory and sense of identity.
Dissociation can range from mild to severe. Mild dissociation happens to most people at some point, such as when daydreaming or driving somewhere without remembering parts of the journey. Severe dissociation is more disruptive and generally caused by trauma.
Why do people dissociate?
There are a few potential causes of dissociation:
- As a defense mechanism when dealing with trauma or high stress
- Side effect of certain medications or drugs
- Symptom of medical conditions like seizures or brain injury
- Associated with mental illnesses like PTSD, depression, dissociative disorders
Experiencing a severely traumatic event can trigger dissociation as a way to emotionally detach from what is happening. People who experience chronic childhood trauma like abuse often dissociate in adulthood as well.
Can you feel emotions while dissociating?
The short answer is yes, you can still feel emotions if you are dissociating. However, the emotions may feel dulled, numb or disconnected from yourself.
Depersonalization and derealization can make someone feel numb, foggy or like they are living in a dream. Even though the emotions are there, the dissociation makes them harder to connect to.
With dissociative amnesia and fugue, someone may entirely lose connection with their emotions. They won’t be able to recall feelings related to forgotten memories.
Numbness and depression
Chronic dissociation often goes hand in hand with depression. Many people describe dissociative states as feeling empty, numb or disconnected from the world and their inner life. They may intellectually know they have feelings but be unable to actually experience or express them.
Depersonalization and derealization can make emotions feel far away or not belonging to you. It may seem like the feelings are coming from outside your body rather than inside. You may be aware you are angry or sad but not feel connected to those emotions.
Lack of emotional regulation
Dissociation impairs people’s ability to regulate their emotions. They may experience rapid, uncontrollable mood swings and an inability to handle negative emotions. Destructive behaviors like self-harm can be a way to “feel something” when dissociated.
Some dissociative people also have alexithymia, an inability to identify or describe one’s own emotions. With alexithymia, you may intellectually know you have an emotion but can’t pinpoint what it is or its intensity. This makes emotions feel vague and disconnected.
Does emotional numbing go away?
If dissociation and emotional numbing stem from trauma, they tend not to disappear on their own even after the trauma ends. Chronic dissociation may require professional treatment to overcome.
Therapies like EMDR, IFS, somatic therapy, and schema therapy can help process trauma so dissociation is no longer needed as a coping mechanism. As people heal the root causes, emotional awareness often improves.
Some tips for managing emotions while dissociating include:
- Grounding techniques like mindful breathing to stay present
- Naming feelings out loud or in a journal
- Somatic practices to reconnect with the body like yoga
- Creative expression through art, music or writing
- Talking to understanding friends and family
- Seeking professional help from a trauma-informed therapist
When to seek help
Occasional, mild dissociation is normal. But if dissociation or lack of emotion is:
- Getting in the way of your relationships, work or well-being
- Feeling like your mind/body is separate from yourself
- Causing problems thinking, remembering, perceiving reality
- Linked to traumatic histories or mental health conditions
Then seek professional mental health support. A psychologist can assess what’s going on and help you reconnect with your emotions and sense of self.
Dissociation and emotional numbing often go hand-in-hand, but they are not the same thing. Dissociation impairs your ability to connect to emotions and experience them fully, but it does not eliminate emotions.
People who are dissociating still have underlying feelings but the dissociation acts as a barrier between someone and their emotions. Treatment focuses on processing trauma triggers so dissociation is no longer needed, allowing emotions to be felt vividly again.