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A Quick Tour of Dissociative Levels
1. Willful concentration: We all vary in our ability to tune out distractions. We find ways to focus on our task by decreasing awareness of our surroundings.
2. CloudsDaydreaming: Funny how we often don't realize that we're doing it until something or someone [hopefully not a teacher or boss] brings us out of it. When we daydream, our consciousness is focused inward, on our fantasies or memories. As with deliberate concentration [but often without conscious choice], we draw a curtain between awareness of the "outside world" and our inner process.
3. Ego loss: A core concept of eastern religion/philosophy. We will be most effective and serene when we "turn off" that part of us that is always watching, commenting…reinforcing our sense of separateness from what we do, what we do it with, and with whom we do. Think of the Zen archer, whose arrow will always find the target because the archer, the arrow, and the target are one. [See the Library.]
4. Autopilot: Most of us have had the experience of driving for some distance and suddenly "waking up." We realize we've somehow driven automatically, Autopilotwithout paying any attention to the process. I remember once riding a motorcycle through western Colorado and eastern Utah for a full day, on autopilot. I started in the desert, and didn't wake up until a car in front of me kicked up a small rock that hit my foot. When I looked around, I realized I was in a suburban construction zone, surrounded by rush hour traffic. I had ridden for 8 hours, even stopped for lunch, with no apparent attention to what I had done.
Autopilot differs from daydreaming in that one is actually doing something that would seem to require attention, while consciousness is focused elsewhere. As one writer put it, "You really are in two places at once."
5. Dissociative response: Sometimes we disconnect from the reality of unpleasant events. We become emotionally numb to some bad news we hear, even while we know we "should" be sad or frightened or angry.
6. Reactive dissociation: Possibly the mildest level of dissociative disorder. To avoid experiencing distressing feelings or acknowledging disturbing memories, one becomes unconsciously adept at separating from them. We all have unpleasant experiences we've forgotten [or, we forget at least the unpleasantness]. Some of us are too good at being unaware of our emotional state, as if on emotional autopilot. Sometimes, we develop the habit of pretending to feel OK, but know that underneath it's an act, and that we're putting off important work that needs to be done sometime.

Sometimes, the dissociation will be more specific, a response to something in the present that reminds one of painful or frightening material that needs to be defended against. A visit to your childhood home, a conversation about a threatening subject, reaching a new stage in a relationship, can trigger a numbness, a separation from thoughts, feelings, self. "I become an observer," one patient said, "rather than a feeler. I can comment on things, but I don't feel them or really experience them."
7. Dissociative Disorders: A variety of maladies that cause "clinically significant distress or impairment…" in ways that vary with the function that is disturbed. Dissociative Amnesia is related to disruption of memory, while Dissociative Fugue [in which people suddenly and unexpectedly move away, forget their past, and take on a new identity] suggests disruption of identity. Depersonalization Disorder ["…persistent or recurrent experiences of feeling detached from, and as if one is an observer of, one's mental process or body…] may be related to disruptions of consciousness and perception. DSM IV*
8. Dissociative Identity Disorder or D.I.D. [formerly Multiple Personality Disorder or M.P.D.]: At the most severe are those who seem to be several different people. DSM IV* describes "the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states (each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and self)."

The diagnosis requires that at least two of the identities "recurrently take control of the person's behavior." Usually, personalities switch when something in the present "reminds" the person of distressing memories or experiences, usually when the person doesn't have the tools in the moment needed to deal with it. Another identity [or part] will then emerge that is more closely related to the original event.
Typically, the person is not aware of the other identities. Awareness varies, however, and increases during treatment.
* Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th edition) by American Psychiatric Association: Washington, DC American Psychiatric Press 1994.

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Jonathan P. Levine, CSW
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Updated on 06/12/2002
2002, Jonathan P. Levine, CSW