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February 19, 2020 by Emma Černis et al | PLOS ONE

Describing the indescribable: A qualitative study of dissociative experiences in psychosis


Despite its long history, dissociation remains under-recognised clinically, partly due to difficulties identifying dissociative symptoms. Qualitative research may support its recognition by providing a lived experience perspective. In non-affective psychosis, identification of dissociation may be particularly important given that such experiences have been implicated its development and maintenance. Therefore, this study aimed to understand in the context of psychosis: what it is like to experience dissociation; the impact dissociation might have; what factors begin, maintain or end dissociative experiences; and what beliefs people hold about dissociation.


Qualitative interviews were carried out with twelve NHS patients with non-affective psychosis diagnoses and experience of dissociation. Data were analysed using Thematic Analysis.


Dissociation involves subjective strangeness, unreality, disconnection, and shifts in perception. It impacts on mental health (including psychotic experiences), daily functioning, emotional connection, and can lead to social withdrawal. Stress, fatigue, and excessive internal focus may be involved in development and maintenance. Participants found it very difficult to describe the experience of dissociation, and, as a result, often did not mention it to others. Even when shared, interviewees reported that their descriptions were misunderstood and therefore they did not receive information or support specific to dissociation. The consensus was that experiences of dissociation are negative, but that understanding them better helped to enable coping.


The core subjective experience of dissociation appears to be a felt sense of anomaly (FSA), and we therefore suggest clinicians proactively enquire about such experiences. Dissociation is distressing, and has multiple impacts, but can easily be overlooked due to difficulties describing it and behavioural similarities to negative psychotic symptoms such as withdrawal.

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