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Are You Dissociating? Here's What to Do

Do you dissociate? Probably. Is that a problem? It depends. Here’s how to tell, and three tips to stay rooted.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #096

Like gluten or ozone, dissociation is one of those things everyone has heard of, but few can really define. This week, we’ll talk about what dissociation is, how it develops, and three ways to counter it if you recognize it as a problem in your life.

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Dissociation is detachment, whether from your body, your emotions, or your surroundings. In short, dissociation is the opposite of being present in the here and now.

Everybody dissociates at least sometimes. Think about all the times you’ve had to read a page over because your mind was elsewhere, or you pulled into your driveway but didn’t  remember the drive home. 

Dissociation can be useful—think of heroic soldiers wounded on the battlefield who blocked out their pain to save others. Even the highly sought-after state of flow is technically dissociation: you become completely absorbed in whatever you’re doing—writing, painting,  coding, or the like—and disconnected from your surroundings and the passage of time.

See also: How to Get Into Flow

Dissociation can also be an emergency survival tactic during intense pain or trauma. Dissociation cuts you off from your experience, making you numb when pain would otherwise overwhelm you. It compartmentalizes horrible events so you can get through another day. Survivors of severe and prolonged abuse get through the worst of human experience by going into a trance state, zoning out, or otherwise dissociating. 

Dissociation is zero percent genetic; instead, it’s a response that gets honed through experience and necessity. For abuse survivors, after years of practice, dissociation often  becomes automatic in times of stress, strong emotion, or perceived danger. But when dissociation continues to be used even when the threat ceases to exist—the child abuse survivor grows up and moves out, the abuser dies or is imprisoned—dissociation stops protecting and starts getting in the way. It leaves the person disconnected, spaced out, and, ironically, vulnerable to more danger.

What Does Dissociation Feel Like?

Two of the more common forms of dissociation are called depersonalization or derealization.

Depersonalization is feeling detached or alienated from your body. Individuals who experience depersonalization often report not recognizing themselves in a mirror, feeling like their body is not their own, feeling as if someone else is speaking, or even being temporarily unable to talk. Needless to say, it can be a concerning experience if it feels profound and uncontrollable, but like most things, depersonalization exists on a spectrum. You may be able to induce some depersonalization by staring intently at your own hand for one to two minutes.  

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