Traumatic situations can arise in many different ways and leave you feeling shaken to the core. It can have such a profound effect on your body and mind, that your brain may choose a protective mechanism, such as dissociation, to help you try and cope with it. If you’ve lived through a traumatic experience and dissociation has become your norm then trauma therapy could help you to find a way back.
What is dissociation?
It is essentially an involuntary detachment from your current reality, which can leave you feeling disconnected from your sense of self, your memory and your thoughts. It’s one of the oldest protective mechanisms humans have, where the brain seeks out internal safety when feeling overwhelmed and where there is no external safety to be found. Dissociation could be an initial response to a traumatic event, the way that your nervous system responds to protect you from physical and emotional pain. It’s the third leg of the “fight or flight” response - if you can’t fight or flight then you’re likely to freeze and it’s here where this kind of disconnect can happen.
What does dissociation feel like?
You may feel separated from the world around you, disconnected from your body, numb or emotionally detached, or you may lose the sense of who you are. Dissociation can also manifest as forgetting events or personal information and having no sense of physical pain. Everyone will experience this differently, there is no one definition of what dissociation should feel like.
When does dissociation become a disorder?
If you experience dissociation in relation to a past trauma it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a disorder. However, if dissociation is a coping mechanism that you learned as a child and has become your main response to challenging circumstances then this could signal a disorder. Some of the mental health conditions that tend to involve dissociation include Dissociative Identity Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Dissociation and trauma therapy
The first step towards healing where dissociation is concerned is to recognise that this is happening. A therapist can help you to understand the way this happens in your body and mind, to explore the emotions and memories that are associated with it and also to start developing some coping skills. You’ll create a specific plan with your therapist to manage your symptoms of dissociation - this could include some of the following strategies:
- Grounding techniques. This can help you connect with the present reality and stop dissociation - for example, putting your hands under running water and noticing how it feels.
- Mindfulness. Learning to stay in the moment can be very beneficial where dissociation is concerned.
- Breathing techniques. There are a number of deep breathing strategies that can help to de-escalate dissociation and calm down the internal survival network that could be triggering it.
Dissociation is a powerful coping mechanism that arises in response to trauma. With dissociation and trauma therapy you can find new ways to respond, no matter what is happening in your life.
That’s why at The Grove we show clients how to understand dissociation and how to ground themselves. Also, we train therapists on our trauma course with a toolkit of ways to overcome common ways that clients dissociate.