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Understanding dissociation

An image of a rock in sand

Dissociation is often a misunderstood concept within mental health and can be associated with stigma and feelings of shame. Some, consider dissociation to be an "extreme reaction" in some way or a sign of a severe mental health condition.

However, in reality, everyone has experienced dissociation at some point in their lives. How many times have you drive from point A to point B and got to your destination safely without actually being fully "present" for every minute of your journey? Daydreaming is a type of dissociation that we all experience to some degree every day.

Dissociation and Trauma

Dissociation is a pretty normal experience for all of us. "Switching off" or "spacing out" is something that our brain does as a way of coping with the multiple stimuli we are exposed to every day. It is an adaptive process that enables us to interact with our everyday environment.

The best way to understanding dissociation is to think of it as occurring on a spectrum. Daydreaming being the less severe form.

When thinking more intense feelings of dissociation - especially when considering dissociation within the context of trauma - many people describe dissociation as an experience of feeling detached or disconnected from their thoughts, memories, the world around them and/or their body (depersonalisation).

Dissociation can often happen during a traumatic event as a coping mechanism the brain utilises to try to protect us from the traumatic experience. In this way, it is adaptive, as it somewhat protects our brain from taking in the full horror of what is happening. However, with repeated / ongoing trauma, dissociation can become an avoidance mechanism and can sometimes persist outside of the traumatic events. Because our brain is so focused on attempting to protect us and operates on a "better safe than sorry" paradigm, what can make dissociation persist beyond the trauma is our brain's inability to discern between real danger and perceived danger. It can often read danger in situations that might serve as a reminder of a past event but where there is no danger present.

Recognising dissociation

If you have been experiencing persistent dissociation, this can have a significant impact on your ability to be present with yourself. An important first step is learning to recognise when you are beginning to dissociate so that you can become aware of the signs of dissociation. Some of the most common symptoms are:

  • Feel detached or separate from the world around you, as if you are "in a dream"

  • Feeling as though the world appears "foggy"

  • Feeling as if other people are not real

  • Feeling as if your body doesn't belong to you (depersonalisation)

  • Feeling as though you are watching yourself from the outside rather than inside your body

  • Feeling as if you are floating away

  • Speak in different voices

  • Feel as if your identity is shifting and you are losing control to "someone else"

  • Not remembering moments during a particular day or, sometimes, an entire day

  • Finding objects have moved in your home but you don't know who moved them

Does dissociation mean I have dissociative identity disorder?

As mentioned above, dissociation happens on a spectrum. Experiencing dissociation does not mean that you are experiencing dissociating identity disorder (DID). Not all forms of dissociation indicate the presence of DID.

Coping with dissociation

Healing from dissociation is often a journey that is part of a structured therapeutic approach. However, there are things you can do to try and reduce the frequency of dissociation and the impact dissociation has on your life.

Learning grounding techniques is an important step to feeling more present. Here are some techniques you can try at home:

Five senses - this is a helpful technique that can be used wherever you are. The idea is to look around your environment and saying out loud 5 things that you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. By engaging all of your five senses, your body will begin to feel more present and you will feel more connected to the environment around you.

Smells - our sense of smell is very powerful when it comes to grounding. If you are someone who experiences nightmares / night terrors that cause you to wake up and feel dissociated, having a slice of lemon that you can smell on your bedside table, can be an effective way to feel more grounded. Essential oils can also be helpful. However, please note that perfumes and other smells that can remind you of particular people or places which may relate to difficult emotions, are not recommended.

A note of caution on meditation - it is important to mention that, whilst meditation can be a very helpful practice for some, it can be contraindicated if you are experiencing high levels of dissociation. If you are unsure, please contact a registered mental health professional or talk to your therapist about whether meditation is something that would be of benefit to you.

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