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Zoned Out: The Spectrum of Dissociation

Have you ever “come to” during a conversation with someone, only to realize you have no idea what they’ve been saying? What about driving home after a long day at work, pulling into the driveway and realizing you were completely zoned out for the majority of your drive (kind of scary!)? Often called “zoning out”, this is actually known as dissociation.

What is it and why does it happen?

Dissociation occurs when a person experiences a disconnectedness from their thoughts, sensory experience, memories, and/or sense of identity. It is a defensive response of our brain wanting to “detach” from an emotionally stressful situation and is often an automatic response to traumatic events.

Everyone Dissociates

Think of dissociation on a continuum, or spectrum, ranging from “normal dissociation” to “dissociative disorders”. Normal (not clinically significant) dissociation behaviors include things like moments of escape, such as getting really into a book or movie and losing track of time, or scrolling through your phone without actually consuming any content, or “highway hypnosis”.

As we travel further along the spectrum, we encounter things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which can include symptoms such de-personalization (a feeling of being disconnected from the body), de-realization (the world around you doesn’t feel real), and/or dissociative amnesia (a loss of memory regarding personal information). Finally, at the end of spectrum we have the diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which involves dissociation so severe that the mind “splits”, or compartmentalizes, in order to protect itself from experiencing the effects of the trauma they have endured.

When should I do something about my dissociation?

As with all symptoms, the questions I usually ask my clients are: 1. How often are the symptoms happening? 2. For how long (duration)? 3. And how much is it impeding your ability to function? If you find that you are spending more time than not dissociating, then it's time to do something about it. Since dissociation can range from a mild sense of detachment to a complete disconnection from reality, treatment options can look different for each person, but a few of the recommended options are Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).

If you would like to meet with someone to learn skills for managing dissociation and/or working through trauma, please give us a call at 832-421-8714 and we will be happy to get you connected with one of our therapists here!


Sarah Howard, LPC

Through the use of EMDR therapy, I work with my clients to facilitate the natural healing process their brain wants to engage in. By strengthening skills you already possess and developing new skills you might need, you will be able to work towards overcoming the aspects of your life that you may feel stuck in.


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