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Dissociation from events happening in the here and now is an adaptive response to threat and is a form of “freezing”. It can also be described as “zoning out”, or “numbing out”. It is a strategy that is often used when the option of fighting or running (fleeing) is not an option. In some situations, dissociation is not only natural but essential. It may be the ONLY thing a person can do. 

As my previous blog mentioned, we might can see the freeze response in a mouse cornered by a predatory cat – the mouse is too small to fight, running is a risky option, but freezing can cause the cat to lose interest and turn away giving the mouse a window of opportunity to make a run for it.

As humans, especially in childhood, we might shut down to draw less attention to ourselves, or in extreme cases, play dead by leaving our body and mentally and emotionally shutting down. It is important to know that dissociation is a normal response in the face of trauma. It can become problematic when dissociation becomes the only and primary method of coping with situations that are experienced as traumatic. 

An important protection mechanism

Being physically, mentally, and emotionally immobilised permits us not to feel the harrowing enormity of what’s happening to us, which in our hyper-aroused state might threaten our very sanity. In such instances, some of the chemicals we secrete (i.e., endorphins) function as an analgesic, so the pain of injury (to body or mind) is experienced with far less intensity.

Is it dissociation or day dreaming?

Everyone occasionally has times of daydreaming or mind wandering, which is normal. Everyone has times when they arrive at a destination having little memory of how they got there – they were on automatic pilot as they drove. Everyone has had times where they suddenly realise someone was calling their name to get their attention and they realise they were “miles away”. This is normal, even common. It is NOT dissociation.

Dissociation and trauma

Dissociation is often a way for people to avoid negative thoughts or feelings related to memories of traumatic events. When people are dissociating they disconnect from their surroundings, which can stop the trauma memories and lower the fear, anxiety and shame that those memories bring up. 

The idea of dissociation can seem a bit confusing or even frightening but doesn’t have to be complicated. People can describe dissociation as “watching myself from the outside”, an “out of body experience” and there is a profound sense of disconnection from surroundings. The person who is dissociating often does not realise it is happening.  Many individuals report that they’re losing moments of time. They look at the clock and see that it’s 2pm, for example, and then look again, and all of a sudden, it’s 3pm. The individual has no awareness of the time that has passed.

What happens during dissociation can be simplified to the message “my mind keeps taking me away from the present moment”. When experienced during a traumatic experience dissociation is understood to be a self-preservation reaction, designed to prevent further injury from an attacker. When experienced after a trauma dissociation might be understood as a form of ‘tuning in’ to traumatic memories (flashbacks) or ‘tuning out’ from the world. 

If you think about this from the perspective of a trauma survivor, maybe somebody who has experienced sexual or physical abuse, disconnecting from the body, or freezing, is actually a very helpful way in which the brain responds.  By freezing, the survivor does not feel either the physical sensations or the emotional affect that might have been so uncomfortable at the time of the trauma that it was too difficult to process.

Preventing dissociation

What unfortunately can happen with dissociation, is that once the brain learns how to dissociate, it can actually do it again and again, without any awareness or without any willingness for it to occur (ongoing dissociation affects present day functioning). 

This is where adaptive behavior turns into maladaptive behavior.  What was helpful in the past, is keeping a person feel stuck and not able to effectively function in the present. 

Trauma therapy includes helping a person to gradually reduce the amount of time they spend in a dissociated state. It is important to be able to recognise it when it is happening so as to learn how to bring yourself back to the present. It is possible to learn strategies to assist with this – see my Grounding Techniques blog.

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!

See also: GroundingMental Grounding Tools, Physical Grounding Tools