Dissociation and Occupation


This blog post will endeavour to explore dissociation and its effect on occupational engagement. In terms of my own personal experience dissociation was the last ‘symptom’ I was willing to admit to as I felt great discomfort admitting to engaging in something I had so little control over or understanding of. Dissociation is a challenging topic to write about, not least because everybody’s experience of dissociation is different. It also is difficult to write about something that involves losing touch with reality because the very nature of the experience is difficult to understand/describe when not dissociated, so I apologise if this post lacks the clarity of previous efforts.

*Additional note – September 2015* –  I started writing this post over 2 years ago and it has languished in my ‘drafts’ folder for a very long time. I think this is indicative of my own struggles to fully process my thoughts about dissociation and its effect on occupation.

What is Dissociation?

‘Everyone Dissociates’

The ‘Dissociative Experiences Scale’ (DES) is a 28 question screening test for Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). I suspect very few people would take the test and score a ‘0’. It is expected that the non-clinical population will score below 30 (this equates to a percentage of time that people experience different dissociative experiences) and is noteworthy. The test expects everyone to relate to some experience of dissociation. The example most often quoted is about completing familiar actions on ‘automatic pilot’, for example driving a familiar route. How many times do you find yourself having completed a task, but not actually able to remember the steps you took to complete it because your mind was on other things? On a simple level, this is dissociation.

Mind have a simple but clear explanation of dissociation, including the different types of dissociative behaviour a person can experience, furthermore the Healing from BPD blog provides a valuable account of the personal experience of dissociation in  ‘what does it feel like to dissociate?’

Dissociation in Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

While the DES screens for dissociation as a diagnostic tool in DID, the occurrence of dissociative symptoms in BPD is common. The ninth diagnostic criterion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) for BPD (of which a person must have five of the nine symptoms to be diagnosed with BPD) is listed as; ‘transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms’. Certainly in my experience of receiving treatment in a Therapeutic Community (TC), dissociation was a significant and problematic symptom for many people.

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)

I have also known people dually diagnosed with BPD and DID. The DSM V (2013) defines DID as being diagnosable  when a person experiences recurrent dissociative episodes, in which behaviour is modified by appearance of a minimum of two separate identities. This can now either be observable by others on self-reported.  For the purposes of this post, the dissociative experiences will be considered from the perspective most often associated with BPD, but I wished to acknowledge DID.

Dissociation as an Occupation

This feels like an uncomfortable statement to me. And further reflection on this concept lead me to wonder about the types of dissociation experienced. For me, much of my dissociation involved a modified participation in occupations that exist ‘in their own right’, such as self-harm or shopping. The dissociation itself was not the occupation, but it really changed my experience of it. It possibly indicated the complexities of that ‘base-occupation’ for me as it was eliciting such a dissociative response. But what about the experience of being dissociated and re-living trauma? Is that an occupation? Often there is no decision to engage in it. But it can certainly be functional, purposeful and packed full of meaning. While incredibly different in cause and experience, there could be some parallels drawn with the experience of daydreaming – and daydreaming feels like something that could be thought of as a discrete occupation to some. This concept needs more exploration before I finalise my views.

Enabling Participation

While dissociation as an occupation is something I’m uncertain about, I’m much clearer about the effect of dissociation on occupation. In my post on apparent competence, Sue (@BPDFFS)  made a very interesting comment that prompted me to reflect. Her feeling was that apparent competence is a mild form of dissociation. As I considered the concept I quickly realised I agreed, there was a certain compatibility with my experience of being able to ‘perform’ in certain situations. I can also relate to the experience of ‘derealisation’ in stressful situations. Often, in high states of arousal I would experience the world as unreal, sometimes like viewing it through a thick fog. This detachment from reality was my way of managing to remain in an environment I found challenging. While derealisation limited full, mindful participation in the occupation occurring, I also believe it provided the opportunity to remain in the situation long enough to allow arousal levels to recede and for participation to occur. I experienced this at college, and salsa, both in the first few sessions. The derealisation ‘bought me enough time’ to stay with the activity and for it not to become something I found too overwhelming. On a similar level, depersonalisation was something I often experienced. I would ‘watch’ myself engage in activities as if it was someone else. Again, this does not allow mindful, integrated participation in occupation but was a sophisticated means of managing high-stress situations.

Disrupting Occupation

As analysed above, dissociation can have an enabling effect on occupation. It is an important coping strategy for people experiencing high-states of arousal. When in treatment, dissociation was, perhaps controversially (due to the automatic nature of it), called a ‘self-defeating behaviour’ and it is difficult to deny that it prevents integrated, cohesive and meaningful participation in occupations. However, I believe the power of dissociation to provide a means of survival, particularly when used to cope with abuse, must be respected. I can certainly also understand the negative aspects.

For me, the vast majority of my self-harm occurred while dissociated. This increased the risk to myself as I was not fully in touch with reality and simply ‘observed’ myself hurting myself. I also had a reduced awareness of pain, and did not have the same protective responses as I might have in a more connected state. Dissociation was also incredibly disruptive when I’d lose large chunks of time when I was trying to study at university – it also felt very hard to explain to my department when I didn’t understand what was happening or why.

For people who dissociate in response to situations that replicate traumatic events, dissociation can happen when related perceived threats occur. This can disrupt occupations occurring in a safe environment. For example, a scene in a film may prompt dissociation and re-experiencing of trauma. In this situation the person has responded as if there is danger, despite being entirely safe. Awareness of the potential for dissociation or re-experiencing of trauma can reduce confidence and pleasure in engaging in such activities, leaving a limited number of safe occupations for the person.

Using Occupation to Reduce Dissociation

I’ve previously written about mindfulness and occupation and while I am not a big fan of ‘minfulness for mindfulness’ sake’ I find mindful participation in activities that truly are purposeful and meaningful to me to be very helpful when I am struggling. In the same respect I find participation in occupations that meet my occupational needs (Doble and Santha, 2008) particularly valuable in reducing dissociation. For example, when I feel accomplished and in control of the occupation it is highly unlikely I would dissociate. However, if the occupation lacks a sense of coherence with my identity, it is much more likely I’d experience some element of dissociation. That said, much like my thoughts on mindfulness, I can also see value in use of mindfulness as an emergency ‘band-aid’ to manage dissociation. If completed ‘well’ (which can be difficult when experiencing the level of distress and detachment associated with dissociation) it comprises such an element of being present that makes complete dissociation and the related detachment from reality very difficult. But as I said, that can be hard to achieve during the onset of dissociation and ultimately I’ve found a longer-term approach to living a life full of congruent, satisfying and meaningful occupations to be a better ‘cure’. I also don;t think occupation is enough to reduce dissociation to a manageable level. It is a powerful coping mechanism that has been developed as a response to life events. So for that reason some other type of therapy is needed to process the feelings, thoughts, emotions or memories linked to the need for a dissociative response.

So, yes, possibly the longest I’ve ever taken to write a blog post and it’s far from a complete consideration of dissociation and occupation. However, it’s a start, and I hope I might be able to explore the topic in more depth now that I’ve gotten over the initial hurdle.

Doble S, Caron Santha J (2008) Occupational well-being: Rethinking occupational therapy outcomes. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy 75(3) 184-190


2 thoughts on “Dissociation and Occupation

  1. Pingback: Dissociation and occupation « Mirrorgirl

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