Detachment & Dissociation and Flashbacks

By Toby Snelgrove, Ph.D.

There is much talk and confusion regarding the psychological barriers individuals use while performing under stressful circumstances. Here is one attempt of clarification.

Professional Detachment

  • The deliberate focusing of one’s attention away from the psychological, or emotional aspect of one’s work.
  • For example, a medical professional will focus on what they are doing to a patient, not the identity or the circumstance of their life.
  • The purpose of professional detachment is to enable the professional to place all their attention on their role, or job.


  • The psychological (emotional) detachment from direct experience

Dissociation during Acts of Threat

  • Though not completely understood, dissociation appears to be a special protective brain mechanism that occurs when an individual is experiencing a psychological trauma, especially during threatening situations.
  • With normal consciousness ~ every day life ~ we are able to store and recall direct experience at will. For example, if you put this reading material down to answer the phone, you would be able to remember what you had been reading and, most likely, where you left this publication.
  • For many, however, traumatic events create a different reaction. Because violent life-threatening incidents post great danger to the individual, one’s automatic survival mechanisms ~ the fight or flight response ~ is switched on.
  • To assist the individual in focusing on what needs to be done to survive ~ fight or flight ~ the brain may assist some individuals by placing the painful, frightening, or unpleasant details out of active memory, enabling one to seek safety first.

Dissociated Memory

  • Some of the painful memories of a traumatic event may be stored in a separate memory bank specifically for such an occasion.
  • Where, as normal consciousness memories can be accessed at any time as a protective mechanism, experiences stored in dissociative memory are not. Essentially, they are placed on hold until the immediate crisis has passed.
  • In order to heal itself, the brain slowly allows these dissociated and forgotten memories to return to consciousness so that one can make meaning from them and integrate the experience into their world view.


  • The return of the dissociative memory is called a flashback.
  • Normally, a flashback is triggered by some symbolic reminder of the incident.
  • As time passes and as the individual makes meaning of the event, these intrusive memories subside.


  • Years later, one may experience intrusive memories such as a flashback.
  • There is no simple answer as to why this occurs.
  • Usually there has been some current life event, or circumstance that has provoked a psychological issue related in some way to the traumatic event.
  • This doesn’t necessarily mean that the traumatic event has not been properly processed, though this is possible. Most likely, there is something in your present life that has triggered this response.
  • If this occurs, I recommend you have a few visits to a trained trauma counsellor and have a “check-up”. It can only help.