The Causes of Dissociative Symptoms

Mental health disorders – including substance use disorder (SUD) – can cause various physical and mental symptoms. Some symptoms are caused by substance abuse or chemical imbalances in the brain, while others manifest in an attempt to address the underlying trauma. While often left under-discussed, dissociative symptoms often result from the latter and can be especially common for individuals struggling with SUD. Understanding the origins of dissociative symptoms can help individuals better understand and overcome these symptoms with professional treatment.

At 12 South Recovery, we understand the feelings of despair that often accompany dissociative symptoms. However, we also recognize that dissociative symptoms have many causes, with one being an attempt to navigate unresolved trauma. Frequent dissociation may indicate that an individual has not fully processed or integrated their past trauma(s) into their lives. Fortunately, our team of professionals at 12 South Recovery can create individualized, trauma-informed treatment plans to help individuals fully overcome dissociation and its underlying causes. Doing this can help individuals achieve lasting recovery.

Understanding Dissociation and Dissociative Symptoms

According to a publication by the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, dissociation is an overload response that “separates a person emotionally from the trauma and, sometimes, from the current setting.” Further, the publication explains, “When something utterly overwhelming happens, some people detach from their emotions in order to function, perhaps even to survive.”

On the one hand, short-term dissociation can be a coping mechanism, allowing an individual to carry on, complete important tasks, or respond effectively to perceived threats. On the other hand, dissociation can quickly become a habitual response to any stressful situation. This habitual response can further remove an individual from the present moment. What’s more, this reaction can cause detachment between an individual and their thoughts, emotions, memories, or sense of identity.

Some examples of dissociative symptoms include:

  • Feeling disconnected from oneself or the world
  • Amnesia – troubles with memory, such as forgetting about certain time periods or personal information
  • Feeling uncertain about personal identity
  • Experiencing little or no physical pain
  • Perceiving the people and things around oneself as distorted and/or unreal

What Triggers Dissociative Symptoms?

While trauma is one of the most well-known causes of dissociative symptoms, there are other causes as well. Even then, it is important to understand why and how trauma and other factors can trigger dissociation.

Trauma and Stress

According to an article by the Delaware Journal of Public Health, “In the face of overwhelming traumatic experience, dissociation can offer a psychic escape when there is no physical escape.” Additionally, “Over time, and particularly in the context of repeated trauma during childhood, the use of dissociation can become a rigid and automatic response to stress that disrupts ‘the normal integration of consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, perception, body representation, motor control, and behavior.’”

Simply put, dissociative symptoms may manifest in an attempt to navigate traumatic experiences – including both perpetrations of trauma as well as reminders of trauma like flashbacks – occurring in the present moment. In addition to trauma, intense or prolonged periods of stress can also inform dissociative symptoms. As mentioned previously, this can become habitual if it is left unaddressed and can worsen in severity over time. Further, leaving such symptoms unaddressed can trigger the development of various dissociative disorders.

Dissociative Disorders and Other Mental Health Disorders

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), three types of dissociative disorders can inform dissociative symptoms. These include:

Moreover, trauma is the most well-known contributing factor to the development of these conditions.

Other mental health disorders known to inform dissociative symptoms include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD)

Substance Use and Abuse

Another cause of dissociative symptoms is substance use and abuse. Dissociation may be a direct result of various drug use such as alcohol, cannabis, hallucinogens, or dissociative drugs, to name a few. According to a publication by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “Dissociative drugs can produce visual and auditory distortions and a sense of floating and dissociation (feeling detached from reality) in users.” Furthermore, the use of these substances can “cause a user to experience anxiety, memory loss, and impaired motor function, including body tremors and numbness.”

On the other hand, many who experience dissociation may turn to alcohol and other drugs in an attempt to self-medicate their symptoms. Some individuals may experience temporary relief from their dissociative symptoms under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. For others, substance use makes their dissociation worse. In either case, once the effects of substances begin to wear off, dissociative symptoms may resurface more intensely than before as a result of drug withdrawal.

Treatment for Dissociative Symptoms at 12 South Recovery

At 12 South Recovery, we specialize in the treatment of mental health disorders, SUD, and dual diagnoses. Our treatments are provided in various outpatient treatment program formats. We provide whole-person care, individualized to meet the unique needs and recovery goals of all of our clients. For those struggling with dissociative symptoms, we have the traditional and holistic approaches that help people overcome not only these symptoms but also their underlying causes. Our main goal is to uncover the root of substance abuse and mental distress to assist our clients in discovering their direction in recovery.

Dissociation is the experience of feeling detached from your thoughts, feelings, and present-moment experiences. This is a natural response when faced with trauma. However, dissociative symptoms can become more severe over time if their underlying cause is left unaddressed. In addition to trauma, stress, dissociative disorders, other mental health disorders, and substance abuse can inform dissociative symptoms. If you or a loved one is struggling with dissociation, we at 12 South Recovery can help. We offer several outpatient treatment programs with individualized treatment plans to fit your unique needs and recovery goals. Further, we provide numerous therapeutic treatment options to ensure customized, trauma-informed care. Let us help you establish lasting recovery. Call (888) 830-8374 today.

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