Featured Topic: Dissociation

This post is the first in a new series of featured topics. This series will address areas of clinical concerns, including dissociation, trauma, and eating disorders.

Dissociation. It’s a big buzz word in the trauma community right now. But what is it? How does it develop? How do you know if it’s happening to you? Should you be concerned? This short post will address these topics and give you practical ideas to move forward.

1. Dissociation happens to everyone - more or less

Dissociation is more of a spectrum rather than a checkbox. It can be as gentle as daydreaming while you drive and realizing you had gone on “autopilot” and are now 2 exits further down the freeway. Or it can be as terrifying as “coming to” without knowing where you are or what happened - all without being under the influence. While we all experience dissociative symptoms to some degree, it can be a scary experience!

2. Dissociation can take many different forms

Some dissociation will feel more mental - this could be like the common experience of “spacing out” or letting your eyes glaze over as you stare into space thinking about almost nothing. Some people experience “blank spells” in memory, or find that they can’t tell if a memory was a dream or a reality. Sometimes, dissociation is physical. Your body or the world may not feel real, or your five senses will give you strange feedback. Sometimes dissociation feels like you’re outside of your body, or you can watch a scene as a third-party observer rather than the one going through it.

3. Dissociation was originally adaptive and helpful

Dissociation is a brilliant defense strategy that the brain uses to help people cope with overwhelming or unpleasant experiences. The more overwhelming and unpleasant, the more compartmentalized the brain needs to keep the information or memory. In some cases, it kept people psychologically safe when they were children and couldn’t keep themselves safe in other ways.

4. Dissociation can be managed

Anxiety lives in the future, concerned with what may come next. Depression lives in the past, concerned with what might have been and reliving guilt or shame; it can’t see the future’s hope. Trauma is housed in the past but interrupts the present, its symptoms bleed into what happens in daily life. Dissociation, however, is disconnected from time, while we ourselves continue to experience time. The key to managing dissociation is staying connected to what is, the present moment. Grounding techniques can help people stay connected to the present moment. Practicing mindfulness, meditation, prayer, etc. can also be helpful.

5. Practical application

We’re going to do an exercise that engage your 5 senses. This is a mindfulness grounding technique. Take a break from reading this article and look around you right now - take note of 5 things you can see that may be visually interesting. Textures, colors, brightness/darkness, movement, and material can all be interesting things to notice. Now move to 4 things you can physically feel. What are you sitting on? How do your clothes feel? Are you crossing your legs? Wearing a ring or watch? Holding any tension in your body? Now turn your attention to 3 things you can hear. Listen hard - is there music? People talking? Can you hear yourself breathe? Is there a bird chirping? Good work so far - now do 2 things you can smell. This can be tricky - is there anything cooking? How does the air smell? Can you smell your shampoo or cologne? Finally, notice 1 thing you can taste. This may be a stretch. If you have food or drink, try taking some of that to help. Really notice the complexity of the taste.

Doing exercises like the one we just did can help people maintain active attention and awareness to the present moment; if you are constantly connecting moment-by-moment, it’s hard for the disconnection of dissociation to creep back in.

If you felt like your experience of dissociation is something you'd like to explore, learn how to manage, cope with, or resolve, contact a mental health professional in your area. PsychologyToday can be a great source of potential leads for you. You've made it this far - consider investing in your future.

Want to learn more? Click here to contact Megan for a free consultation.

Megan Bonynge is a trauma therapist intern in Orange County working under supervision. She specializes in EMDR therapy, PTSD, dissociation, and eating disorders. She is trained in early EMDR intervention for very recent traumas. Megan also teaches part time at Cal State Fullerton.