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TEAM ZOELLA FEBRUARY 10, 2022

Understanding Dissociation: The Trauma Response That Leaves You Disconnected From Reality

Dissociative disorders occur as a response to threat, be it an act of violence, loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or alternatively as a response to perceived dangers from childhood, as the mind’s way of helping a person distance themselves from a difficult experience.

Ever been a bit too hungover or sleep-deprived and felt yourself walking around in a daze, not fully present? Or perhaps you’ve found yourself getting to the end of the day without quite remembering how you got there. It’s normal in periods when life is hectic to feel like everything is a bit of a blur, but what about when you can go months at a time feeling disconnected from yourself, your personal history, or as if you’re having an out of body experience? For those suffering with dissociation, be it sporadically or for extended episodes, this is the reality.

Dissociative disorders including Derealisation, Depersonalisation and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) occur as a response to threat, be it an act of violence, loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or alternatively as a response to perceived/past dangers from childhood, as the mind’s way of helping a person distance themselves from a difficult experience. Not all those who disassociate are experiencing a dissociative disorder, as Jodie Cariss, therapist and founder of the contemporary mental health therapy service Self Space notes:

You may adopt dissociative behaviours if your life is demanding, you go to an emotional place you aren’t familiar with, a current experience is reminiscent of difficult things in the past or you are confronted with a reality that feels too hard to manage

Jodie Cariss

The differences between Dissociation/Derealisation/Depersonalisation:

Dissociation, Derealisation and Depersonalisation are all strategies used in defence of feeling and are similar in terms of their impact but can be distinguished by the different degrees to which a person is cut off from themselves, their reality and their feelings, notes Jodie. “They all share the same foundation, which is denial in some form and they all act defensively but have varying levels of the intensity of the denial.”

Dissociation

This is where you semi-consciously cut yourself off from a stressful situation. You take yourself somewhere less threatening internally as a form of protection.  Sometimes this can be helpful and sometimes as with all defence mechanisms it keeps you cut off from the emotional place you really need to access. 

You might….

  • Feel as though you are watching yourself in a film or looking at yourself from the outside.
  • Feel as if you are just observing your emotions.
  • Feel disconnected from parts of your body or your emotions.
  • Feel as if you are floating away.
  • Feel unsure of the boundaries between yourself and other people. 

Snow, known as SnowBabyFresh on Instagram and TikTok has shared her experiences of dissociation with her community of followers online and describes the way in which she feels during an episode: “It’s honestly a very unpredictable sensation but besides the general Google search answers for what it feels like, I describe my experience as having ‘goo thoughts’. For me, it feels like instead of racing thoughts, they are stuck in goo or mud or something like that. It came out of my mouth like that during an attack that I had been recording and it ended up on my TikTok, and it turns out that loads of people related to ‘goo thoughts’! In my head, it’s kind of like the world is still moving around at a normal pace or even faster, but I’m moving slower. Physically, it sometimes feels like a panic attack on the rise, like a restlessness in my entire body. In really severe attacks, it can feel like my skin is hovering off of my body. Just this overall sensation of being off-kilter.”

Derealisation

This is when someone begins to think delusionally, cutting themselves off from reality, not just an emotional distance but also a cognitive distance from the truth to the point they are reinterpreting information in a different, unreal way.

“For example, a person might be working towards a goal, something that’s taken an unrealistic amount of time, money and energy to work towards but they feel that with just one more step they will be where they need to be” continues Jodie. “The focus is so intense that you are unaware of what is happening in other areas of your life which cuts you off from reality and your present situation. Derealisation is where you feel the world around is unreal. People and things around you may seem “lifeless” or “foggy”.”

Depersonalisation

This is experienced as feeling disconnected or detached from yourself.  Feeling as if you are outside of your own body and thoughts, often watching yourself. Those who have been exposed to traumatic events may reflect on them in a depersonalised way, for example with experiences of war or road traffic accidents. Nurses, doctors, soldiers and those exposed to difficult matters, often for prolonged periods may use depersonalization as an effective form of emotional protection.

Jodie goes on to say, “I have noticed an unhelpful rise in depersonalisation in the digital dating world, and hear this often with clients who are using dating apps. There is a sense that it dehumanises the interactions, making the connections less human which can result in shallow relationships that are devoid of meaning and content. Where immediate gratification is being sought and satisfied, the person is not thought about again (this might mean long conversations then ghosting, meeting and then being ignored), this can be dangerous when we forget about the impact we have on others and them on us.”

Common Symptoms 

  1. Feeling like you’re outside your body, sometimes as if you’re looking down on yourself from above.
  2. Feeling detached from yourself, as if you have no actual self.
  3. Numbness in your mind or body, as if your senses are turned off.
  4. Feeling as if you can’t control what you do or say.

Mental health charity Mind emphasises the importance of remembering that everyone’s experience of dissociation is different, and you may feel any of these dissociative experiences even if you don’t have a diagnosed dissociative disorder. If you have some of the experiences mentioned above and are concerned about your thoughts, feelings or behaviours, speak to someone you trust, ideally your GP. If you want to learn more before you speak to someone, look for trusted resources, like the information on the Mind or NHS websites. 

Living with Dissociation

Casey Molina aka CaseyIsHealing on TikTok regularly shares mental health-focused content, be it on reparenting yourself, feelings of unworthiness or dating in your twenties, and has discussed disassociation and its impact across a series of viral videos. 

As I get older I realise dissociation is something I actually experienced for the first time at a really young age, probably around 10. I used to be a voracious reader when I was a child and could easily finish a 500+ page book in one day. I’d hide in my bathroom and read the whole day, oftentimes taking the stories I read and trying to bring them to life in my own reality by pretending I was a character from the books I was reading. Everything I did and everywhere I went would surround a plotline from the books I read. I used to imagine someone was coming to “save” me from the life I was living. 

As an adult, I realise now I was doing this as a defence mechanism to escape my reality or to project a more desirable version of my life.Casey Molina

As an adult, I realise now I was doing this as a defence mechanism to escape my reality or to project a more desirable version of my life. I re-experienced dissociation as an adult after the pandemic started. I was living in Spain in March of 2020 right before the pandemic started and I was forced to come home suddenly after my teaching program was cancelled. I hopped around to lots of jobs struggling to find something that made me enough money to move out of my Dad’s house.

Pictured: Casey Molina

“I finally landed a marketing job that I thought would be my dream position, but I could feel myself quickly cracking under the stress of the work I was doing and many of the expectations and responsibilities placed on me. I would have weeks on end where I would wake up feeling numb to life and experiencing crippling anxiety to leave my house, even just to go for a walk. But I could easily spend 3+ hours a day on TikTok or other social media trying to decompress from a stressful day of work. There would be days where I would walk outside and be so disoriented by my surroundings and the sunlight, that’s when I realised something more was going on than just “a couple of stressful weeks of work.”

Dissociation can feel especially challenging for sufferers who are acutely aware of slipping in and out of their experience of reality, but this is something Casey is working on accepting. “It makes me sad to think that one day I will look back at the smaller moments of my life that I was scared to be present for, that I was finding ways to not be there for and I’ll wish that I had savoured them. But I’m realising I don’t have to be regretful if I find ways to heal from my dissociation triggers and work through them in the present moment. It takes a lot of mental energy and strength to reprogram yourself from defence mechanisms your mind has put in place to protect you from harm and, at times, I feel like I’m fighting myself. I would say that’s the hardest part, realising that so much of your mental energy goes towards fighting against your mind.”

What can trigger an episode of Dissociation?

Even after significant time has passed since a traumatic event occurred or the circumstances in an individual’s life have changed, certain sensory experiences such as sights, sounds, smells, touches, and even tastes can trigger a cascade of unwanted memories and feelings. Dissociation can also be associated with various other mental health conditions, such as Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and more, but it’s important to remember you do not necessarily have a mental illness if you experience dissociation from time to time.

“I used to think it was completely random, and it can feel that way sometimes but when you really dissect it, there are almost always triggers or sensitivities that lead to an episode.” Says Snow. “In my experiences with hypnotherapy and EMDR (which is incredibly terrifying but truly helped me heal a lot), I learned that I have a sensitivity to certain sensory systems. For example, my olfactory response which is responsible for your sense of smell is extremely heightened when I’m anxious. So essential oils can help calm an episode, but there are smells that will trigger one. I am that way with specific sounds that relate to my trauma as well. Emotions are another huge trigger, whether it’s a really intense feeling or anger or sadness, my body will send that signal of “you cannot feel any more of this, we’re shutting it down” and then I can dissociate. But honestly, sometimes I’d prefer that than a crying episode.”

I have this feeling within myself that I am never allowed to have a breakdown or not have it all together.Casey Molina

For Casey Molina, the triggers for her dissociation are more closely linked with her personality and traits that leave her feeling less than.My episodes are largely triggered by perfectionism and my self-identity as the hyper responsible and mature one in my family and in my friend groups. I have this feeling within myself that I am never allowed to have a breakdown or not have it all together. Most aspects of my life need to feel foolproof: like my safety net has a safety net. In my work life, it normally takes the form of taking on unnecessary tasks at work or working overtime even though I’m extremely stressed out or feeling burnt out. I used to refuse help from coworkers or my superiors when I was asked, trying to project a “she can do anything” persona. In my personal life, it looks like overextending myself emotionally to friends and significant others, creating space for people and giving them advice when I haven’t even taken a moment to sit with myself.”

How to support someone you love in a dissociative episode

“I think the most important thing friends and family can do to support people during dissociative episodes is to acknowledge when you go to someone and express that something feels wrong that they feel heard and made space for,” says Casey. “ I think a lot of people would have told me the way I was feeling about my job was normal. Maybe they do a lot of the same things I do by going home or logging off after a busy workday and basically distracting themselves from reality until it’s time for bed, but I feel really lucky that my dad made a lot of emotional space for me to express how I was feeling. To share that emotionally and mentally I wasn’t in a good place and that even though it seemed like I had all of these amazing things going for me- new apartment, new job, normal workout routine, healthy social life- for some reason I didn’t feel present for any of it. 

One of the most important things my friend did for me was sit down with me at a cafe that day and just LISTENED to me talk as I told her what had been going on in my life and described how I was feeling. Casey Molina

“One of the most important things my friend did for me was sit down with me at a cafe that day and just LISTENED to me talk as I told her what had been going on in my life and described how I was feeling. I really felt like she acknowledged me while also sharing that she was getting the help she needed by seeking it professionally. It’s a personal choice for everyone, but I definitely would not be where I am today without someone (my friend) helping me put a word to what I was going through.”

Seeking help and understanding dissociation can be difficult when someone first experiences these sensations, as Snow well knows. “ It probably wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and started doing hypnotherapy and EMDR that I finally was able to have a term for what I was experiencing. Up until then, I thought that I was just having panic attacks but they felt more muted. But as it turns out…it’s dissociation! It really was a lightbulb moment of things making sense and piecing together the experiences I’ve had that were actually dissociative episodes. But it’s kind of a double-edged sword in that sense because I had to start processing some things in a new perspective.”

How to support yourself during a dissociative episode, including ways to feel more present during a dissociative episode, according to Jodie of Self Space:

  • Spend 5 minutes observing what’s going on around you, in your mind describing it to yourself.
  • Spend 5 minutes checking in with yourself, say out loud how you are doing , even looking in the mirror.
  • Take a shower, swim or have a bath, or even wash your hands in cold water and really focus on what you are doing, the feelings, sensations, smells etc.
  • Eat something strong tasting or smell something fragrant to help ground you through your senses.
  • Touch the ground with your bare feet, lean heavily against a wall or lay on the hard floor, to feel grounded, touch is a powerful sense for this. 
  • Set up a code word with a friend who can call you when you let them know you need grounding into reality and talk about how you feel and do some of the exercises together. 
  • Animals can be a huge source of support when we need to connect with our present moment. Hug your pets or a friend’s animals or even a cuddly toy if that’s not possible. 
Individual and group therapy to support challenging patterns and behaviours and to process experiences when being called into reality is demanded.Jodie – Self Space

“Speak to your GP or doctor, talk to those you trust about how you present in the here and now and if you can reflect on a childhood with a sibling or family member who can also vouch for reality and your experiences. Individual and group therapy to support challenging patterns and behaviours and to process experiences when being called into reality is demanded.”

Mental health charity Mind suggests exercises such as keeping a journal to help sufferers understand and remember parts of their experiences. This can include artwork and writing and can be helpful in improving connection with oneself. “Visualisation can also be helpful. This technique is a way of using your imagination to create internal environments or scenes that make you feel safe and contain difficult feelings or thoughts – for example imagining visiting a place that feels safe to you. Grounding techniques can help keep you connected to the present and avoid feelings, memories, flashbacks or intrusive thoughts that you don’t feel able to cope with yet. Some helpful grounding techniques include breathing slowly, walking barefoot or wrapping yourself in a blanket and feeling it around you.”

There are no drugs currently licensed to treat dissociation, however, psychiatric medication may be offered to you to treat other symptoms you may experience as a result of, or alongside, a dissociative disorder such as depression, anxiety or OCD, says Mind.

If you are worried your dissociation could put you in an unsafe situation, making a crisis plan can be helpful. This document explains what you would like to happen if you are not well enough to make decisions about your treatment or other aspects of your life – you can find out more information on planning for a crisis on Mind’s website.

Talking to people who also experience dissociation or dissociative disorders and sharing your experiences can also help.

Mind

Mind’s online peer support community, Side by Side, is a place where you can feel at home talking about your mental health and connect with others who understand what you are going through. Side by Side is available 24/7 to anyone over the age of 18 and is moderated daily from 8:30am to midnight.

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Saskia Martic

Thank you for posting this! I’m a part of the Unreal charity. I’m 19 and am on the board as youth representative. Awareness is so key in diagnosis and treatment so thank you very much.

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