Dissociation is an often misunderstood subject within mental health, which, in part, is due to it not being as accessible as some of the more well-known points of interest. The reason being that it covers such a wide spectrum. However, ironically, everyone has experienced dissociation on some part of that scale. When we daydream, we dissociate from our present reality and what’s in front of us. But we’re often able to snap ourselves back into a conscious frame of mind almost in an instant when our presence is required. Dissociation that’s the result of trauma-related mental illness, however, is quite a different expression.
What is Dissociation as it Relates to Trauma?
Dissociation within the context of mental health – and more specifically trauma – is a process in which an individual disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories, behaviours and physical sensations. However, it’s important to note that while all of these symptoms can present within a single episode of dissociation, they’re not all required for an episode of dissociation to be classed as such.
Dissociation is an avoidance mechanism that an individual will unconsciously engage in as a way of protecting themselves from perceived harm. For example, when someone experiences a traumatic event, the memory of that event will be stored within the body. And from that point onwards, whenever they encounter a specific trigger relating to that experience, it may cause them to dissociate to varying levels of intensity, depending on the severity of the event.
What Causes Dissociation?
The general consensus amongst most mental health professionals is that dissociation is a way in which the mind copes when it’s subjected to excessive amounts of stress that the human mind just doesn’t have the proper coping skills to regulate. And since those emotions that are surfacing can’t properly be regulated, to minimise the damage to that person in the long-term, the body and mind will dissociate to ‘lessen’ the suffering in the immediate felt sense. And so, dissociation can be thought of as kind of a last resort. It’s like the red button behind the glass that reads ‘break only in case of emergency.’
Dissociation is a coping mechanism, that, when rooted in severe and/or ongoing trauma, can become the reference point for how to deal with future situations. However, because the body is so keen to protect us from harm, it can often read danger within situations that have similar environmental or interpersonal cues presented in an entirely different context. In short, you can dissociate even when there’s no danger present because of the body’s willingness to protect you from harm. And so, people who dissociate during traumatic events are far more likely to develop a pattern of dissociating as a future coping strategy.
Coping With Dissociation in Adulthood
The challenge in properly managing your trauma-related dissociation in adulthood is very much dependent on your ability to be present with yourself. You need to be able to recognise your patterning, what triggers are causing you to dissociate and ultimately what they’re rooted in. And it’s important to highlight that last point. Because as obvious as it sounds, due to the nature of dissociation and what it entails, you might not be fully aware of the trauma you’ve experienced. For example, some survivors of child sexual abuse have little to no memory of their past experiences, because the mind has suppressed them enough that they don’t have an effect on their conscious mind, allowing the person to lead a relatively normal life and make day-to-day decisions. However, under the surface, things are not as they should be.
How Can You Tell If You’re Dissociating?
Dissociation can present differently depending on the trauma it’s related to, your overall baseline level of mental health and how severe the triggers are that cause you to experience an episode. Here are some of the most common symptoms:
- Feeling disconnected from yourself and your body
- Difficulty in processing dense emotions
- Difficulty intellectualising information being present to you
- Sudden and unexpected shifts in mood
- The need to remove yourself from the source of your triggering
- Feeling as though the world is distorted
- Memory issues and trouble recalling information you’d usually have no problem
The Difference Between Dissociating and Dissociative Disorders
It’s important to make clear the difference between an isolated cause of dissociation and a dissociative disorder. And to explain it in very basic terms, all dissociative disorders involve varying degrees of dissociation. But not all forms of dissociation indicate you have a dissociative disorder. So, in terms of trauma-related dissociation, if you’re someone who has a diagnosis of PTSD OR C-PTSD, you might be prone to trauma-based dissociation. But as it’s a fear-based condition, it doesn’t come under the umbrella of a dissociative disorder, despite the fact of there being some overlap.
Healing from Trauma-Related Dissociation
Dissociation can be a hard thing to wrap your head around, and if you’re unaware of the mechanics of what’s happening, you could assume that you’re going crazy. When, in actuality, what you’re experiencing are the tremors or aftershocks of an unpleasant or traumatic event that happened to you in the past. It can be a long road to heal from dissociative trauma. And you will most likely need the help of a professional therapist. But if that’s not an option in the immediate short-term, or there’s something else preventing you from seeking help, there are some self-regulating techniques that can help you.
Grounding involves coming back into the felt sensation of your body and your surroundings, which may be more difficult to achieve depending on the intensity of your triggering. Here are some techniques you can try at home:
Sensory Stimulation: You can attempt this in whatever way you feel works best for you… But essentially, the idea is to encourage you to reconnect with your body by using external stimulus. So, you might use a variety of objects to ground using touch. Running water can be very helpful, as well as familiar objects that might trigger a memory. Basically, use anything that will help break through to your dissociated self to make the re-member the feeling of physicality through the body.
Breathing Techniques: Now there’s a caveat here. And that is not just any old breathing technique will do. You can use most mindfulness breathing exercises for mild-moderate stress, but they might not be so effective with intense levels of dissociation. If you’re going to bring breathing in as a grounding strategy, it’s important that you don’t discount it after the first attempt, as it can be a highly effective tool for self-regulation and it might just be you’ve found one that doesn’t work for you. So be sure to look for trauma-informed breathing exercises as you’ll be coming to breathing from a completely different place in your nervous system than most people the more common breathing techniques are aimed at.