Dissociation is a term that covers a broad spectrum of experiences from mild, ordinary moments to more intense, distressing trauma related incidents. Every single person you meet has dissociated at some time in their life. Dissociation makes it difficult for us to stay present and occurs when we feel stressed or overwhelmed. Its a natural response the brain reverts to when stressed or under a perceived threat.
What is Dissociation?
At a basic level it can be defined as a disconnection or absence of connection. Mild dissociation can be daydreaming or when your attention wanders or blanks out. Intense dissociation is when an experience is too overwhelming or threatening for us to be able to process. Typically, disconnection comes because we do not have adequate emotional support.
Our mind and body share a common language and are connected and working together. Dissociation is a break in how our mind handles information and can create fragmentation. It may be in response to a one-off traumatic event or ongoing trauma, neglect or abuse. We separate our memories from the emotions involved and by blocking our emotions we also block the memory. This constructs a barrier between your awareness and parts of you that feel too scary to know.
If you dissociate you may feel disconnected from yourself and the world. It affects your sense of identity and your perception of time. It can feel as if you are somewhere outside of your body looking in.
- Feeling detached, numb, lack of emotion
- Brain fog, floating, forgetfulness, sensory overload
- Losing touch with what’s going on around you
- Unsure of the boundaries between yourself and others
It is key to recognize that no two people experience dissociation the same way. An illustration of mild dissociation would be daydreaming or so focused on something that everything else drops away which is pretty common and healthy. Losing track of time as you watch tv, cook, listen to music or becoming so absorbed you didn’t notice someone enter the room.
The other end of the spectrum is more intense trauma-related dissociation which for some was an essential means of survival in childhood and now becomes a way they function as an adult. This is usually a result of psychological, physical or sexual trauma, neglect, substance abuse…
The common link is the way we experience our sensory or emotional inner world. You may disconnect from the present moment when something bad happens. We remember part of an experience but edit out difficult aspects. Your mind uses this subconscious avoidance strategy to protect you from the full impact of the upsetting experience.
Triggers remind us of our unhealed trauma and associated emotions such as fear and panic. At its core dissociation is a protective response blocking awareness of sensations to avoid triggers. You might not realise the dissociation is linked to a [traumatic] experience from your past. Once this helped you deal with difficult circumstances, but it’s no longer helping since it’s a survival mechanism… not a strategy for living.
Recognizing personal triggers helps you understand the reasons you dissociate and in time can give you choice about how to respond. When old memories are triggered it’s as though you are right back there in childhood lost in something that hasn’t been digested or integrated. What felt safe minutes ago suddenly can feel terrifying and unsafe.
The first step is to become aware of your feelings. When you shift from feeling okay to feeling uncomfortable or vulnerable, instead of dissociating these feelings of fear by unconsciously pushing them outside your awareness… perhaps you begin to identify the feeling. As you notice that your mood has shifted you can begin to explore what may have been going on before you were activated.
Dissociation helped you survive a painful ordeal in childhood but it becomes a stumbling block in your adult life. It interferes with developing secure relationships and can compromise your capacity to trust, socialize, attach and provide good self care. The more you understand about dissociation the more empowered you are. The real reality is that you are safe now and no longer need this avoidance mechanism to protect you.
During a somatic session we work to create a space of safety where it’s okay for you to be present in your feelings and in your body. We work on the somatic and subtle awareness levels to help you ground yourself in present time. Supporting you to be present in your adult self and through the somatic repair and integration work, help you move beyond surviving… to living life.
Here are some ideas that you might want to add into your wellness toolkit.
- Ground. Place your feet on the floor and feel the support from the earth below.
- Orient. Name 5 things you can see.
- Breathe. Deep breaths. Exhale longer than you inhale.
- Look at your hands. Notice they’re adult hands.
- Your Voice. Say something. Hum. Sing. Feel the vibration of your voice in your throat.
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