If you have arrived here already in a dissociative state, or have recently been in a dissociative state, I want you to make a deal with me before you continue reading. Please let this be the last webpage/blog/video that you take in about this topic for the rest of the day. I am not saying that because I think I am the end all be all of speaking on this topic or that the information in here will be sufficient for all that you need in regards to dissociation symptoms. The reason that I state this is because dissociation can be quite scary and I see that people tend to do a lot of research on this topic. We hate feeling this way and so we seek out answers and reassurances from other people who have felt the way that we are currently feeling. There are some good stories out there and there are some bad stories out there.
People are often afraid of "going crazy" or harming themselves because of this seemingly out-of-body experience. And if you look hard enough, you will probably find some horror stories where some of those fears did come true. However, you are only getting a snapshot of what happened for that person. You might not be aware of the mental health conditions that they were predisposed to or if there is some level of substance use that is playing a part in the equation.
There is always a story out there to confirm your "worst case scenario" and looking for them isn't going to help in this instance. What we can do for now is learn a little bit about what our body is doing and pick a few tools to help us move away from this feeling of disconnection and reconnect with our bodies.
There Are Different Levels of Dissociation
The good news is that dissociative symptoms are a normal part of the human experience. There is just a hierarchy to how dissociated you might feel. At the bottom of the list we might have just simple day dreaming. You know, when you realize that you've been zoning out for the past few minutes, thinking about your last vacation, creating a fantasy in your head, or trying to decide what you want the rest of the day to look like. Most people do not panic in response to having these sensations and see them as a normal part of life that does not require any professional help. But it's important to recognize that this is a form of dissociation, and we do not want to see the experience of dissociation like a light switch where you either have it or you don't. A good analogy might be to think of having stomach pain. Sometimes we can point to why our stomach is gurgling as it might be the spicy food we ate a few hours ago, or other times we recognize that our body is just making a little bit of noise and we don't need to follow up on it. We don't move our minds to wondering if we have pancreatic cancer every time that we feel some stomach pain. In the same way, we do not want to see the all dissociative behavior as an indicator that we are on the verge of developing dissociative identity disorder. Minor sensations are part of daily life.
As we move a bit higher up the dissociative conditions latter, we might feel a more prolonged sense of detachment. This generally does not come because we are day dreaming, but rather because we are responding to the stimuli of another event. This is a coping mechanism that our body enacts when we have spent too much time in our fight or flight response. Utilizing the Window of Tolerance, which you can see more about in our course on that subject, we see this as moving from hyperarousal into hypoaraousal. When we are in hyperarousal our sympathetic nervous system is clicked on and we might feel sensations that are closer to what we feel with most anxiety disorders: racing thoughts, elevated heart rate, tingling sensations, etc.
But being in this state requires a lot of energy and our body cannot sustain this mode, thus we will move into hypoarsoual which is where are dissociative episodes live. And though there are certainly different types of dissociative disorders, I prefer to continue to paint this as a normal experience for us to have. It's something our body is designed to do protect us and is not always indicative of mental illness or post-traumatic stress disorder.
What To Do
Whenever we start to experience dissociation, it's crucial to first acknowledge what's happening. There's no need to escape this realization or convince ourselves everything is okay. It's possible we're experiencing a trauma response, or our body is naturally entering this state. Accepting this without judgment is important.
Understanding the root cause of our dissociation is essential before we can effectively manage it. As previously discussed, dissociation is our body's defensive mechanism when it perceives overwhelming risks. We need to grasp why it feels threatening to remain connected with our body in the current moment. What challenges or situations might we feel unequipped to deal with if we were fully present? Reflecting on this can diminish the fear or stigma associated with dissociation.
Moreover, focusing on our breathing in a dynamic way is beneficial. While many people opt for long, slow breaths to relax, emerging from dissociation might require deeper inhalations and shorter exhalations. It's similar to preparing to lift a heavy object – not to the point of hyperventilation, but enough to slightly increase our heart rate.
Ultimately, we are trying to come back to the present moment and regain a sense of self. One of the simple things that you can do is hold an ice cube in your hand. If you want to opt for a bit more, you can do a cold shower or use some ice packs. We are trying to essentially "trick our body" into coming back online and recognize that we are not necessarily in the middle of what could be a traumatic event.
If you are indeed in a situation that has potential to be a traumatic experience, we might want to remain more detached from the experience. People who are survivors of sexual abuse might describe not feeling connected to their body or even questioning if the sexual assault actually happened. Again, our body is trying to protect us from being in a state of extreme stress.
Engaging in some form of physical movement is also helpful. It doesn't have to be intense like running or weightlifting; simple actions like standing and stretching can be effective. Try rolling your shoulders or tapping your feet.
Lastly, consulting with mental health professionals is highly advisable if self-help techniques fall short. A therapist can assist in uncovering the reasons behind your dissociation. We can't fully regulate our emotions or experiences without identifying them, and a therapist is a valuable resource in this process. As symptoms of dissociation are often a response to past trauma, finding a therapist who can do some somatic work or eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) can be a good way to go.
Additionally, using dialectical behavior therapy in our treatment plan can be a good "top down" approach to understanding how to regulate and stay inside our window a bit more. As we work towards healing, especially when it comes to chronic dissociation, it is important to have a robust set of tools so our body does not feel that it needs to act that defense mechanism so quickly.
There are also specific medications that can be helpful and as always, you should consult with a healthcare provider about any medication. Seeing somebody who specializes in prescribing in regards to mental health issues is highly advisable. I think that our primary care doctors can be good resources when we are needing some lower level anxiety or depression medications, but if you feel your mental health symptoms carry a bit more complexity to them, working with a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner might be a better way to go.
Now 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
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