Dissociation can be disorienting and even scary, especially if it’s new to you. Read on to learn what dissociation is, and how to cope with it.
What Is Dissociation?
Dissociation is a temporary loss of present moment consciousness. People who experience dissociation may have trouble with memory. Often, they have trouble remembering traumatic events, but they may struggle to remember non-traumatic events as well.
Dissociation may feel like:
- The world around you is dreamlike or unreal
- Watching yourself passively
- Time is slowed down or sped up
- Being “outside of” or “above” your own body
- Emotional and/or bodily numbness
- Difficulty registering outside stimuli, like heat and cold
- Difficulty registering inside stimuli, like hunger and thirst
The Dissociative Spectrum
Ever driven somewhere, arrived and realized that you don’t remember taking all of the turns? Or look up from your phone and realize that hours have gone by without you realizing it? These are examples of mild dissociation that all people experience at some point.
On the other end of the dissociative spectrum, there are people with the diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder. These folks’ dissociation occurs to the extent that they are actually multiple people who exist in the same body, with different personalities, memories, and preferences (this is extremely rare, occurring in between 0.01-1% of the population).
Most people with clinically significant dissociation have experiences that land in the middle of this spectrum. They may experience dissociative episodes that last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, and may be able to remember them to varying degrees.
Why Do People Dissociate?
Dissociation is a helpful adaptation to protect the human psyche.
Humans are only designed to be able to manage a certain amount of stress. When the brain and body become overloaded with stress, they “shut down” - almost like a computer getting overheated and automatically turning itself off. This protects the person from having to process too much at once.
A traumatic event is any distressing experience that overwhelms someone’s usual abilities to cope. This could include emotional, physical or sexual violence, neglect, or medical problems, to name a few examples.
People can dissociate during traumatic events, and they can also dissociate after the events, when they’re exposed to a trigger. A trigger is something reminiscent of a previous traumatic event. For example, if someone who has been in a car accident watches a TV show where there is a car accident, it may trigger dissociation.
How to Stop Dissociating
Once you’ve started dissociating, it can be difficult to stop in the moment. Because your mind is “offline,” you might not even be aware that you’re dissociating.
There are many ways to cope with dissociation by reducing its frequency, intensity, and impact. Over time, you can decrease how often you dissociate, and even stop dissociating altogether.
Tips for Coping with Dissociation - Short-Term
- Use grounding techniques to bring you back to the present moment.
- Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
- Name 3 objects you can see in front of you.
- Keep a small object in your pocket that you can rub or observe with your 5 senses. Rocks and crystals are especially nice.
- Notice what your feet feel like on the ground, and the weight of your body in the chair underneath you. Grab the arms of the chair you are sitting in, or place your hands on the furniture next to you.
- Recite your name, age, location, the date, the year, and other relevant details.
- Watch a familiar, comforting TV shows or listen to your favorite music.
- If you’re concerned that your dissociation may put you in immediate danger, visit your nearest emergency department, or schedule an intake as soon as possible at a partial hospitalization program.
Tips for Coping with Dissociation - Long-Term
- Identify the environments, people, and circumstances that trigger dissociation. Avoid these triggers when possible, and prepare for them when they are unavoidable.
- As much as possible, take care of your activities of daily living - drinking water, eating regularly, getting enough sleep, taking medications, and resting. Here’s a free printable daily journal for tracking your basic needs. People who dissociate often forget or have trouble doing these things. The more consistent you can be, the better.
- Bookmark favorite photos, phrases, TV shows, music, or podcasts, and bring them out when you think you may be about to dissociate.
- Tell trusted loved ones or professional support people about your dissociation. Discuss ways they can help keep you safe when you are dissociating.
- Work with at least a trauma-informed therapist; ideally, one who specializes in trauma. It is helpful to have a professional who can help you put the puzzle pieces together, and even better if they are willing to talk with your support system as well.
Trauma-Informed Self-Guided Support for Mental Health
Research shows that self-help materials are often enough for people to overcome mild to moderate mental health difficulties without professional support.
If you’re interested in a trauma-informed self-guided program, be sure to check out The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit.
About RebeccaRebecca Ogle, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social worker and therapist in Chicago, IL.
Rebecca provides therapy to people with anxiety, low self-esteem, and people pleasing tendencies. She uses a feminist and social justice lens, and interventions based in CBT, mindfulness, and motivational interviewing.
For helpful, free content, follow her on Instagram or go to her website.