Dissociation vs Disassociation: Understanding the Difference

Dissociation vs. Disassociation: Understanding the Difference. Considered by many to be the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali once famously said, “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” In other words, it is what we are going through at the moment that can really drag us down. This is true in life, and it is also true for individuals who struggle with mental illness, including those who struggle with both dissociation and disassociation.

What Is Dissociation vs. Disassociation?

When it comes to dissociation and disassociation, it should come as no surprise that they are often mixed up; they are virtually spelled and sound identical. However, they are two very different issues.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), “Dissociation is a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of who he or she is… During a traumatic experience such as an accident, disaster, or crime victimization, dissociation can help a person tolerate what might otherwise be too difficult to bear. In situations like these, a person may dissociate the memory of the place, circumstances, or feelings about the overwhelming event, mentally escaping from the fear, pain, and horror.” 

On the other hand, disassociation is a more expansive idea. It has to do with separating and disconnecting from certain elements of an experience. This is often utilized as a coping mechanism, especially when someone is feeling overwhelmed at the moment. Now, many people might think that this sounds too similar to dissociation. While they are, indeed, similar concepts, there are also big differences between the two.

What Is the Difference Between Dissociatione and Disassociation?

The biggest difference between dissociation and disassociation is that one is controlled and one is out of someone’s control. This is because the latter is linked to a dissociative disorder (and other mental health disorders and addiction issues). 

To dissociate means that someone’s psychological state is shielding them from a certain experience or set of experiences. These experiences generally fall under the category of trauma. This is also why dissociation is also often linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The process of dissociation is happening outside of someone’s control, which is the primary difference between this and disassociation.

Conversely, disassociation is a continuous decision made by someone to avoid a certain feeling or emotion. Now, this does not mean that disassociation is not harmful or disruptive. It simply means that disassociation is a coping mechanism often consciously used to deal with something at the moment. Utilizing disassociation as a coping tool is not healthy, especially when it is done to excess. Both dissociation and disassociation are issues that should be addressed by professionals.

Treating Dissociation and Disassociation

Dissociation vs. Disassociation: Understanding the Difference

Both dissociation and disassociation can be treated via psychotherapy. This is the predominant way that dissociation is treated, and it is a recommended way by which disassociation can be treated.

One of the most effective psychotherapies for treating both the symptoms of dissociation and disassociation is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). According to the clinical write-up titled Cognitive Behavior Therapy by Doctors Chand, Kuckel, and Huecker, “Cognitive behavior therapy is a structured, didactic, and goal-oriented form of therapy. The approach is hands-on and practical wherein the therapist and patient work in a collaborative manner with the goal of modifying patterns of thinking and behavior to bring about a beneficial change in the patient’s mood and way of living his/her life. It is used to help a wide range of problems, and appropriate treatment protocols are applied depending on the diagnosis and problems the patient is facing.”

Yet, psychotherapies are not the only way to treat dissociation and disassociation. Utilizing experiential therapies, holistic methods, and grounding exercises can be great tools for treating both of these issues. This includes yoga, breathwork, meditation, and acupuncture, which have all been shown to elevate mood and reduce stress. It also includes therapies like art and horticulture therapy, which can help people reconnect with the world around them. Lastly, it includes exercises such as focusing on single sounds and single textures, walking barefoot, counting backward, and pausing when upset.

Muhammad Ali also famously said, “Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.” This does not just apply to boxing; this applies to the work we put in to win over mental illness, and here at The Phoenix Recovery Center know we have the tools that it takes to win.