How to Handle Dissociation: Tips on What to Do

December 4, 2023

Normally when I write a blog post in regards to mental health, I like to give some sort of illustrative story about what it feels like to be in the state that we are discussing. However, at the present moment I am going to refrain from going into the description I would normally give as being in a dissociative state is already quite triggering. My guess is that if you have come across this page you have experienced symptoms of dissociation before and know that it's not a very pleasant experience. The last thing I want is to create more dissociation anxiety to somebody who is trying to gain some more tools for dissociative episodes.

Normalizing Dissociation Symptoms

If there is one thing that I want for you to take away from this blog, it is that you do not need to have a mental health disorder, such as dissociative identity disorder to have a dissociative episode. Dissociation is something that our body naturally does and something that everybody experiences to some regard in their life. Some of the examples of mild dissociation might be like when you are very lost in a good book or project and lose some sense of the surroundings you have in the physical world. Another one that many people have experienced is "highway hypnosis." This is the phenomenon that happens when you pull up to a stop light and realize you "haven't been paying attention" for the past minute or so. It can feel like a scary thing when we are operating a vehicle and notice that our body has been on autopilot for a few moments, but we can use this as good news for now that we do not need to fight every experience of dissociation.

Now, I am also guessing you are not here because the mild symptoms are causing great disturbance in your life. But as a mental health professional it's always important to me that we de-stigmatize mental health issues, not just for the sake of public perception, but also because when we identify certain experiences as unacceptable, we both exacerbate the discomfort we feel when they occur as well increase the likelihood of them occurring in the first place.

Simply put, dissociation is a defense mechanism that your body enacts to protect you from experiences or emotions that might be overwhelming to you. This is actually an incredible thing that our body has the ability to do that generally comes when our fight or flight response system has been overstimulated. We experience stressful situations and our mind enacts a coping mechanism to shut down so that the sensations that are occurring do not cause as much pain the present moment.

The example that we always come back to when talking about our fight or flight system is being attacked by a bear. If the bear catches us, we actually want our body to dissociate. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't really want to be too connected to my own body while the bear does what bears do. I would want that sense of detachment to take place.

Traumatic Event

People who go through traumatic experiences often experience dissociation. As mentioned before, their body may have been trying to protect itself by dissociating during the traumatic situation. This can occur during sexual abuse, life threatening situations, or other forms of severe trauma. However, eventually this coping strategy can begin to have negative consequences for our lives. We begin by experiencing a feeling of disconnection from our present reality and some people describe having out-of-body experiences. I have heard people describe that they do not feel like a real person or that perhaps the other people around them are not real. Some of these symptoms can be characteristic of depersonalization-derealization disorder, but not everybody experiencing those symptoms will meet the criteria for such a diagnosis.

When we think about why this happens, it makes sense. Trauma has the ability rock our sense of self and make it so that we no longer feel safe in our own body. Dissociating is a way of trying to escape our body so that we do not have to feel present to the sensations that may or may not be forthcoming.

Anxiety Disorders

You certainly do not have to go through a traumatic event in order for the negative consequences of dissociation to show up in your life. The reason I use the language of "negative consequences" is to further remind us that some mild dissociation is part of daily life and we do not need to try and eradicate all of it from our lives. People who are experiencing this type of disorder often displace signs of dissociation as their nervous system moves into too hyperaroused of a state on too consistent of a basis. Their body has trouble handling the stress that comes along with the physical sensations of anxiety and eventually moves into a collapsed, hypoaroused state.

I would also be remiss if not to bring up that not getting enough sleep or experiencing intense times of stress can lead to dissociation. However when we mention either of these, it is important to note that these are extreme occurrences and do not generally happen after a night or two of bad sleep or a stressful phone call at work. This would need to be a prolonged absence of sleep, existing perhaps over days at a time, or a consistent build up of extreme stress.

What To Do

When we feel that we are beginning to dissociate, we want to first become aware of what is happening. We do not need to run away from this idea or tell ourselves that we are fine. We might recognize that we are having a trauma response or our body is just moving into this state. We don't need to identify it as unacceptable.

We cannot regulate out of dissociation if we have not been able to identify what it was that brought us to a place of dissociation in the first place. As we spoke about before, dissociation is a protective move that our body makes when it feels the risks are too much to stay present to. We have to come to an understanding of what feels risky about being connected to our body in this present moment. What would you not know how to handle or navigate if you were to reconnect? Answering this question can take some of the fear or shame out of dissociating.

Additionally, we should turn out attention to our breath in an invigorating way. Most people will try and calm themselves down more by taking long slow breaths, but in the case of coming out of dissociation we want to take some deeper inhales with some shorter exhales. Think of if you were trying to "pump yourself up" to lift something heavy. We don't want to hyperventilate persay, but we do want to raise our heart rate a bit.

Lastly, try reconnecting to some movement. You don't have to go for a run or lift weights, but just standing up and stretching can be enough. Roll your shoulders back and forth or tap your feet on the ground.

And of course we are going to recommend seeing a therapist if coping skills are not enough. Hopefully the therapist can help you identify why you are dissociating. We cannot regulate ourselves out of an emotion or experience that we haven't been able to name and a therapist can help you name all of that.


Now that you have put into practice some options for grounding, we want to equip you with more tools for your every day life. At THRIVE we have a number of in person groups to help you educate yourself and being to process your experiences, as well as offer you tools to use for times when disassociation happens. Here is a link to our latest options - GROUPS 

Not local? That's okay! We have just the thing. Our therapists have been working hard this year to bring their best psychoeducation and tips to an affordable, accessible, online platform that will help you increase your therapy experience. Get started with a free membership today!

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