Carlin Singer, LMFT
PTSD Symptoms & How to Cope: Dissociation
This blog post is part of a series, "PTSD Symptoms & How to Cope", in which I will explain common symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and provide some tools for coping with them.
So, what the heck is dissociation? Dissociation is a state of detachment from your body and your here-and-now experience. The severity and experience of dissociation can vary from person to person. The type of dissociation I'm discussing today is on the more mild-moderate end of the spectrum. If you are experiencing severe dissociation (going blank, not remembering where you were or what you were doing, losing control) I would highly recommend that you seek professional counseling and support.
Here are some common words people use to describe dissociation:
feeling like you are on the outside looking in
numb, detached, distant, isolated, far away
foggy, fuzzy, tunnel-vision, frozen
feeling like you have lost time or are on auto-pilot
Why do we dissociate? When we are experiencing a traumatic event we go into survival mode. For some people, the best and safest response is to numb out and go somewhere else until the traumatic event has passed. Some traumas are too awful and distressing to survive while fully present, so our bodies take care of us by dissociating. The problem is when dissociation becomes a habitual response to ordinary stress.
So, how do I cope and stop dissociating?
Step 1: Learn to recognize the early signs of dissociation.
This will be different for everyone. When I become aware that I am beginning to dissociate I notice that other people feel farther away, I become very still and stiff in my body, and I become less aware of my surroundings. Try tracking your physical sensations in a moment when you know you are fully present and then see what you notice in a moment when you start to check out.
Step 2: Practice orienting and grounding techniques.
Orienting is a tool for actively and intentionally observing your current environment. If you are dissociating in response to ordinary stress, chances are that you are physically safe.
Take a moment to observe your environment and answer some questions like: what colors do you see; where are the doors and windows; what sounds do you hear; who is with you.
Now try to wake up your body. You can do this by wiggling your fingers and toes, pressing your feet into the ground, stretching, gently patting/tapping your arms or legs, or any other type of movement that might feel good.
When trying these exercises, make note of how your dissociation shifts - is it getting more or less intense?
Step 3: Integrate Your Experience
When we dissociate, our minds aren't fully on board and engaged. Once you have come back to the here-and-now, take some time to write down your reflections on what happened. What triggered your dissociation? What sensations, emotions, and feelings did you notice? How did you help yourself come back into your body?
Participating in therapy can be very helpful for people who are living with some of the trauma symptoms discussed in this series. Schedule a free therapy consultation to discuss whether therapy can help.
This blog post is not intended for professional counseling or clinical advice. If you're in need of support, please consider reaching out to a professional.
Photo by Naomi August on Unsplash