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Is dissociation bad? Zoning out of the world occasionally may seem harmless, but repeatedly using dissociation as a coping mechanism may interfere with your life. In this article, we will discuss how to stop dissociating, provide practical strategies for coping with dissociation, and tips for helping someone with dissociation. Your journey toward mastering your mind starts here.
What is dissociation and how to get out of dissociation?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, dissociation is: “a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of who he or she is.” (1)
Then is dissociation bad? Not entirely.
Everyone experiences some kind of dissociation from time to time which can also be called the experience of being in a “flow” state.
When in a “flow,” you feel fully absorbed in the activity you are doing and may not notice your surroundings or yourself. Perhaps it’s when you are dancing, playing the guitar, or simply getting lost in a fascinating novel.
However, the dissociation that we are discussing here is understood as a coping mechanism used by individuals to manage and survive intense stress or trauma.
What are the causes and symptoms?
So, what causes dissociation?
The primary causes are typically linked to traumatic experiences, particularly those occurring in early childhood; however, they can also be the result of repeated trauma in adulthood.
This can include physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, being a part of or witnessing a terrifying event, such as a war, or living in a hostile, unsafe environment.
Chronic stress and some types of mental health disorders, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Borderline Personality Disorder, and some forms of depression, such as Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), may also lead to dissociation (1). Dissociation can also result as a symptom that relates to anxiety (2).
Common symptoms of dissociation may include:
- Amnesia (An inability to recall autobiographical information)
- Spacing or blanking out
- Constantly recalling a certain memory (Usually happens with PTSD)
- Depersonalization (Feeling like watching yourself in a third-person view)
- Derealization (Feeling like you are in a dream or a movie, disconnected from your surroundings)
- Identity confusion (Not sure who you are)
- Identity alteration (Having multiple identities)
Dissociation as a coping mechanism?
Well, how does dissociation can be used as a coping strategy?
At its core, dissociation functions as a coping mechanism as it is the mind and body’s way of pressing the ‘pause’ button, disconnecting from emotionally charged thoughts, memories, sensations, or emotions when they become too overwhelming (3).
While the short-term, protective function of dissociation serves as a survival mechanism at the moment, especially during acute stress or trauma, over-reliance on dissociation in the long term can lead to complex issues (4).
Dissociative Amnesia, Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) may emerge and thus cause more problems in one’s daily life. DID is when different “parts” or personalities develop as the result of recurrent trauma, often in childhood.
For instance, in the Marvel TV series Moon Knight (spoiler alert!), the protagonist, Marc, created a new identity as a coping mechanism to handle his childhood traumatic experience. This manifestation of Dissociative Identity Disorder causes memory gaps and significant challenges in his social life.
Non-epileptic seizures and other conversion disorder (somatic) symptoms are also evident in some presentations of Dissociative Identity Disorder. These are manifestations of DID in the body.
What does anxiety dissociation feel like? – Dissociative Panic Attack
Dissociation with anxiety or panic attacks can feel quite distressing and surreal.
During such an episode, you might feel detached or disconnected from your own body, as if you’re observing yourself, like watching a movie. This is known as depersonalization. You may feel as though you’re in a dream or that things around you aren’t real, called derealization symptoms (5).
Like in the movie Momento, you may also experience a form of memory loss, where you can’t remember details about yourself or what happened during the panic attack.
Physical sensations can also be part of the experience. It’s common to have heightened senses; noises may seem louder than usual, lights brighter, and you might feel your surroundings closing in on you (6). Although people going through dissociation episodes may notice some of the experiences described above, they may not always realize that these are coping techniques to deal with trauma.
Working with a mental health professional is recommended if the symptoms of dissociation cause functional impairments in one’s life.
While dissociation can serve as an initial survival mechanism in the face of trauma, or extreme distress, relying on dissociation can cause disruptions in daily life. Dissociation can range in symptoms from occasional daydreaming to significant detachments in reality. Seeking help from a mental health professional is important if dissociation is affecting one’s quality of life and functioning.
How to get rid of dissociation? 8 powerful methods
Dissociation can become a problem and interfere with your daily life, especially dissociation at work. No one wants to blank out at an important meeting.
If you are wondering how to deal with dissociation, the key is to practice being present. So next time you realize that you are disconnecting from yourself, you can try one of these practices:
- Choose a personal object: Just like the protagonist in Inception has a spinner to remind him that he is in reality, you can have a small personal object, such as a coin or a watch, to help you snap back into the present moment.
- Be mindful of your breath: Try finding a quiet place and sit comfortably. Slowly breathe in and out of your nose.
One recommended practice is the 4-7-8 breathing method. This breathing practice encompasses inhaling for a count of four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds, and exhaling for eight seconds. The theory behind this breathing method is that the exhale is slightly longer than the inhale, promoting parasympathetic dominance mode– helping the body and mind to relax.
- Mindfulness walk or forest bathing: If you prefer a more active practice, going for a walk in nature can also help you feel more present.
Have a stroll in the park, and pay attention to your surroundings: How are the birds chirping? What are the colors of the leaves? How does the sun feel on your face? These practices have been found to reduce levels of cortisol, or the stress hormone in the body (7).
- The 5-4-3-2-1 method: This is a popular grounding method that can help calm anxiety attacks while also helping people with dissociation regain their sense of awareness. Practice using your senses and notice five things around you:
- Five things you hear: These may include the sound of the AC or dogs barking outside. It can be intentional meditative music or a particular song that anchors you to the present moment.
- Four things you see: This might be your reflection in the mirror or a color on the wall. It could also be a guided imagery exercise for further exploring this sense and its impact on regulating the body and mind.
- Three things you can touch: Perhaps the seat beneath you or your feet on the ground. It could also be petting your dog—which can also be soothing to your nervous system. If you’re finding you need extra support grounding back into the present moment, holding a frozen orange may be particularly beneficial due to the cold, texture, and scent.
- Two things you can smell: This can be the scent of coffee or diffused lavender oil (having this on hand may also be a good idea as this scent has been found to be calming).
- One thing you can taste: Perhaps the taste of your lip balm. Or, you may want to even bite into an orange but be mindful of its citrus taste.
Besides the tips that can help you calm down at the moment, other practices can help you prevent dissociation in the long term and support you in regulating emotional distress and anxiety, tackling dissociation from its core:
- Get quality sleep each night: Sleep is foundational for all aspects of our health, including our mental health. In fact, sleep deprivation has been suggested to induce acute dissociation (8). Furthermore, studies show that sleep disturbance can worsen anxiety (9). To get enough quality sleep, you can try these tips below to practice good sleep hygiene:
- Keep your room dark and cool
- Aim to get 15-30 minutes of sunlight first thing in the morning. This helps in regulating circadian rhythm, your body’s internal clock.
- Limit screen time 1 hour before bed
- Go to bed at the same time every day
- Avoid caffeine 4 hours before bed
- Get regular exercise: Regular exercise is proven to help lower anxiety (10). Try jogging, swimming, walking, dancing, or any type of physical activity for 30 – 60 minutes daily to feel more present and energetic.
- Maintain a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet: A balanced diet with diverse, colorful vegetables, fruits, quality protein, and omega-3 fatty acids is foundational for mental health (11).
The Mediterranean diet is an ideal choice. It provides the body with key micronutrients while limiting processed sugar and refined carbohydrates that can wreak havoc on mood. The Mediterranean Diet also supports microbiome health, further playing a role in mental health as a number of neurotransmitters important for mood are synthesized by beneficial strains of bacteria in the gut (12, 13).
- Keep a journal: Jotting your feelings down can help you identify the moments leading up to periods of dissociation and the triggers contributing to them.
Reflecting on your feelings throughout the day can provide insight into your dissociation while supporting long-term mental health. In fact, research shows that just labeling your feelings has a soothing effect on the amygdala, the alarm center of the brain (14). If journaling doesn’t align with you, other forms of emotional identification and expression, such as art or poetry, maybe something helpful to explore.
If dissociation interferes with your daily functioning, such as in your personal relationships, school, or work, reaching out to a mental health professional is recommended.
The health professional can help you develop healthy coping strategies, such as mindfulness, grounding techniques, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Eye-Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) with the help of a skilled therapist may also address underlying trauma and get to the root of the dissociative behaviors (15).
Somatic therapies, including yoga, biofeedback, and meditation, may be supportive in bringing the body and mind back into balance. Yoga and meditation, for instance, can improve vagal tone, which has positive effects on the nervous system and mood (16). Biofeedback can also provide insight into one’s triggers of dissociation, as it provides a measurement of one’s nervous system functioning in real-time.
There are several strategies for managing dissociation. Mindfulness practices like focusing on a personal object, 4-7-8 breathing, forest bathing or a mindfulness walk can all support one in grounding back into the present. The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a practice that enables you to reconnect with your senses, helping you return to the present. Long-term preventive strategies for dissociation include getting quality sleep, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet, and journaling or other forms of emotional identification and expression. Somatic practices like yoga, meditation, and biofeedback may also help in supporting nervous system health and regulation. Finally, CBT, EMDR and other forms of psychotherapy with a trusted clinician have been suggested to be effective in addressing symptoms of dissociation.
Can people tell when they are dissociating?
People may not always be aware that they are dissociating, especially if it’s a chronic or long-term habit developed in response to trauma. However, certain signs, such as feelings of detachment, unreality, memory lapses, or shifts in identity, can indicate dissociation.
What happens to your brain and body when you dissociate?
Dissociation impacts the way your brain processes information. Brain areas linked to emotion and memory, including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, may function differently or become less active (17). This can cause feelings of disconnection from reality, memory disruptions, or even shifts in identity. Areas of the brain involved in interoception, attention regulation and self-referential processing have also been shown to be altered. The Autonomic Nervous System has been suggested to also play a role in dissociation, such as activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System, the body’s flight, fight, fawn or freeze mode.
Do you remember things when you dissociate?
Memory during dissociation can vary widely from person to person. Some people may have a clear memory of what they experienced while dissociating, while others may have partial or no memory. Memory loss is widespread in Dissociative Amnesia and Dissociative Identity Disorder.
What type of childhood trauma causes dissociation?
Various forms of childhood trauma can lead to dissociation, including physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence. Dissociation is a coping mechanism to help the person mentally disconnect from the traumatic experience. However, it’s important to note that not everyone with childhood trauma will develop dissociative symptoms.
Why is dissociation so scary?
Dissociation can appear with memory loss or confusion, which can be very unsettling. The fear can also be intensified if the individual does not understand what is happening. However, proper therapy and treatment can help in managing these symptoms.
How to support a friend or loved one with dissociation?
If you’re trying to offer support to a friend or loved one who is dissociating, one of the first things to remember is to be gentle and supportive, as this is not their fault. As noted, some individuals may not even be aware that they are dissociating. On the other hand, those who struggle with dissociation and are aware may feel embarrassed or even shameful. Therefore, remaining empathetic and compassionate is key.
Dissociation can serve as a coping mechanism to manage intense stress or trauma, but over-reliance can cause more complex issues. Practicing mindfulness and having a lifestyle that supports mental health are helpful ways of coping with dissociation.