Friendships Mental Health

Dissociative Disorder – What it is and how to help someone with it

When the mind is under intense stress it can dissociate as a way to cope. 

If someone has experienced physical, sexual, or emotional trauma in the past then it’s possible that their body and mind dissociated in the moment. 

Dissociation is a normal response and can help the mind switch off from the very scary thing that is happening. This can help a person disconnect from what is actually happening and help reduce the physical and emotional pain they might otherwise feel in the moment.

Dissociative disorders can develop when someone has experienced ongoing complex trauma, particularly as a child or young adult when the brain is still developing, and they used dissociation to survive the traumatic or abusive situations.

When someone develops a dissociative disorder, it means that they are still dissociating months or years after the traumatic event. 

When a person is safe and no longer in the traumatic situation the dissociation shows us that they have been triggered and feel that they are back there. When this happens the body and mind take over and the person dissociates to cope with the threat their mind perceives. Dissociation at this point could be a sign that they have not yet been able to process what happened and instead have locked it away and tried to ignore it. 

Periods of dissociation can last a few hours or days, or they could last months. They could be connected to a mental health issue like anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or could be a side effect of medication or drinking alcohol.

There are several different types of dissociative disorders. The 3 main types are:

  • Depersonalisation-derealisation disorder
  • Dissociative amnesia
  • Dissociative identity disorder.

You can read more about the different types and their symptoms on the NHS website here:

man, alone, lake, pond, autumn, leaves

What to do if you think a friend might be struggling with dissociation:

  • Tell them how much you care and want to support them.
  • Talk to them about what their triggers might be and help them avoid these. Triggers could be anything that causes a strong emotional response, e.g. certain places, sounds, smells, songs, or types of touch.
  • Talk about what might help if they dissociate. Often grounding techniques can help people cope, encouraging them back into the present moment. Some examples include listening to and naming the sounds you hear or what you can smell right now. Some people find hugging a teddy bear or smelling their favourite perfume can help, and slow breathing creates some calm. Try to help remind your friend of these techniques to help them come back into the present if you are there when they dissociate.  
  • Show them this blog to help them learn more about what might be happening to them.
  • Encourage them to think about talking to a professional who is trained in working with trauma. Offer to help them find support and go with them to a first appointment.

Remember you are not alone and there are people out there to help your friend. Supporting someone who experiences dissociation can be tiring. Make sure you look after yourself too.

Image of the author, Chloe Foster

Chloe Foster has a background in working in mental health and youth work. Today she runs Sussex Rainbow Counselling where she specialises in counselling LGBTQ clients online.

Chloe holds a postgraduate diploma in psychotherapeutic humanistic counselling from The University of Brighton. She is also an approved accredited registrant member of the National Counselling Society, and an accredited gender, sexuality and relationship diversities therapist with Pink Therapy.