“Dissociation?” a colleague and fellow trauma survivor remarked, during a pre-Covid conversation over breakfast tacos. “It isn’t good.”
“Why?” I replied.
“Because dissociation is shameful. It means you’re weak.”
I ended the conversation by respectfully disagreeing.
Because I believe dissociation is a miracle.
What is dissociation?
As a response to trauma and chronic stress, dissociation is the name for disconnection between one’s thoughts, surroundings, emotions, and identity.
Like trauma, dissociation is common; everyone is bound to experience it at least once during their lifetime. Also, like trauma, dissociation lies on a spectrum, to varying degrees of duration and severity. Daydreaming, for example, is a mild form of dissociation.
There are 6 types of dissociation:
- Dissociative amnesia. Trouble remembering periods of your life.
- Dissociative fugue. Temporary loss of identity or the formation of a new identity, typically after sudden or unexpected travel.
- Feeling as though the world – its objects and people – is unreal.
- Feeling as if you’re floating away or observing yourself from the outside.
- Identity alteration. Shifting between different identities and personalities.
- Identity confusion. Difficulty defining who you are.
To use a personal example, my first experience with dissociation occurred in 2014, during a stint as an English teacher in the Republic of Georgia. To cope with my chaotic, emotionally distressing environment, I numbed out. Halfway through my 1-year contract, the world lost its vibrancy. Its people did too. I remember feeling nothing where emotions should have been, even after enduring daily rounds of verbal abuse from my volatile host father.
In 2020, my dissociation returned, this time in the form of low-level derealization. The world in its current state feels foggy to me, a blur of monotonous, unremarkable days amidst a chaotic backdrop of an entirely different kind.
Understanding dissociation: a tale of two nervous systems
To understand dissociation, you must first look at your nervous system, or more specifically, your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
You’re probably already familiar with your sympathetic nervous system. Ruled by your amygdala and hypothalamus, your sympathetic nervous system is the source of your fight or flight response. It’s also your body’s first line of defense, activated when a dangerous, albeit temporary, situation requires an immediate physical reaction.
Your parasympathetic nervous system, however, is where things get more complicated. In addition to regulating relaxation, sleep, and digestion, your parasympathetic nervous system also oversees immobilization, your body’s “freeze” response.
Ever heard the phrase “paralyzed with fear”? That’s your amygdala talking again, through activating the dorsal vagal branch of your vagus nerve, as a last line of defense when a threatening situation exceeds your ability to cope or if the source of danger is prolonged and inescapable.
Why is dissociation a miracle?
While the Coronavirus pandemic isn’t my first dissociation rodeo, it might be yours.
In the face of economic upheaval, political unrest, and widespread loss of life, you might feel numb, unable to access or identify your emotions. In the face of social isolation and indefinitely suspended community events, you might feel confused, unable to weave together your pre and post-Covid identities. And despite being unemployed and in desperate need of a new job, you might feel paralyzed, unable to formulate and act upon a decision.
You might feel all of these things and more, and that is okay.
Because dissociation is a natural and miraculous response to prolonged trauma, a response that, like shock absorbers on your car, shields you from trauma’s full psychological and physiological impact, such as heart attacks and clinical dissociative disorders.
How to spot and respond to a dissociative episode?
Miracles aside, it’s important to recognize and respond to dissociation’s early warning signs. Because if left untreated for long enough, dissociation can spiral into something more serious, such as insomnia, mood disorders, and addiction.
Some early warning signs that you’re dissociating include:
- Memory loss around certain time periods, events, people, or personal information.
- Feeling disconnected from your own body.
- Feeling like the world and people around you are unreal or distorted.
- Loss of feelings or trouble identifying your emotions.
- Tunnel vision and brain fog.
Though dissociation commonly follows a trigger, or stimuli bearing semblance to an original traumatic event, it can occur if you’ve never experienced trauma before, especially if a traumatic event is current and ongoing. Periods of dissociation, called “episodes,” can be brief, for minutes to days, or long, for weeks to months. Chronic dissociative episodes, such as those lasting for years, are associated with clinical dissociative disorders, such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
Upon recognizing signs of a dissociative episode, immediately remove yourself from the triggering situation, and, if possible, find a quiet and comfortable area to practice the following grounding techniques:
- 4-7-8 breathing. A grounding technique based on yogic breath control and my go-to for dissociative episodes. To practice, find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, rest your tongue against the roof of your mouth, and move through the following cycle – inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat for 4 full breaths. For best results, practice 4-7-8 breathing twice per day, even when you’re not currently dissociating.
- Practice acceptance through self-affirmations. Don’t be like my colleague; shaming yourself for dissociating will only make things worse. Practice acceptance by creating and repeating a self-affirming phrase, to-be repeated in the face of a dissociative episode. Make sure your phrase carries emotional weight, weight that’s unique to you. For example, my self-affirmation is: “This is okay. My mind and body are trying to protect me.”
Though there are no hard and fast rules for how many times you must repeat a self-affirmation, aim for a minimum of 20 repetitions.
- Focus on an object. Another personal go-to and a great accompaniment for 4-7-8 breathing, as I find that physical objects provide stimuli that remind you of your place in the present. Find an object in your home – this could be a blanket, a colorful stone, or an article of clothing – hold it in your hand, and zero in on it. Note its colors, textures, and characteristics until you feel your dissociative episode subside.
- Keep a feelings journal. A great long-term option, as it can help you identify triggers and reconnect with your emotions. Once per day, take a few minutes to record your mood, daily activities, and thoughts in a physical journal or electronic app.
When to see a professional?
Sometimes grounding techniques aren’t enough, and like dissociation, this is also okay.
Consider enlisting a mental health professional’s help if your dissociative episodes have:
- Persisted for 3 months or more.
- Led to increased alcohol and drug consumption.
- Negatively affected your relationships or performance at work.
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, worried about a loved one, or would like emotional support, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
About the Author: Alicia Michelle is a content creator, trauma survivor, and freelance writer who specializes in all things PTSD. She helps trauma survivors and highly sensitive people live their best lives on her trauma-informed travel and lifestyle blog,
The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios only.
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