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Dissociation and Trauma

What is dissociation? 

The definition of dissociation is the process by which your mind disconnects from your thoughts, emotions, current experiences, or surroundings.  

How is dissociation related to trauma? 

Dissociation is most common in individuals that have experienced trauma, but can also happen in moments of extreme stress, anxiety, depression, or overwhelm. Dissociation is part of the fight-or-flight response that helps protect us from threats or danger. If you are not able to escape or protect yourself from your trauma, your mind is the last defense of self-protection. 

Dissociation is your mind trying to protect you, so much so that you may feel disconnected from the present moment or from your body. It can be a “mental escape” when physical escape is not possible. Some also describe it as a “switching off”. 

Many trauma survivors report dissociation in the moment of their trauma, but it can also happen when triggers (or reminders of the incident) are present. Feelings of dissociation can last moments, hours, days, or weeks. While dissociation is a function to protect us, frequent dissociation after the fact can be distressing or impede in day to day functioning. 

What are symptoms of dissociation?

  • A sense of being detached from yourself or your environment (some feel as if they are watching their body from above, or are not in their body)
  • Spacing out, losing your train of thought 
  • Feeling as if your body or the world around you isn’t “real” (some may feel as if they’re in a video game)
  • Feelings of numbness, apathy
  • Things may feel foggy, cloudy
  • Feeling as if you are carrying out actions but are not in control 
  • Distorted sense of time 
  • Lapses in memory
  • Issues concentrating 
  • Lack of physical sensations or lessened physical pain

How can I cope with dissociation?

Grounding skills and mental distractions have been shown to be the most effective in bringing your brain back online and coming back into your body. Below are some examples of each tool. 

Grounding skills are effective because when we are dissociated, we are out of our body. Engaging in activities that put us back in our body can ease feelings of dissociation, and offer more awareness of the present moment. This could look like running your hands under cold water (or you may have seen the viral technique of dunking your face into a bowl of ice water), sipping a warm drink, gentle stretching or other exercise, wrapping up in a warm blanket or weighted blanket, interacting with a pet, getting out into nature, or taking deep full-body breaths. 

Mental distractions can be effective because you’re attempting to use the logical part of your brain, which is usually difficult to access when we are highly emotional or overwhelmed. Attempting to think through a mental challenge can help us bring that part of our brain back online. This can look like counting or naming objects in your environment, engaging in an intellectual task such as crosswords, sudoku, or other puzzles, or other activities such as naming an animal for each letter of the alphabet (A=alligator, B=bear, c=cat, and so on). 

However, if dissociation is pervasive, it is recommended to meet with a mental health professional to address the root of the problem. Processing your stress or trauma related dissociation with a mental health professional can help to decrease symptoms of dissociation. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, is the gold standard in trauma healing. All therapists at Sea Glass Mental Health are trained in EMDR and are trauma informed. 

Meet The Author

Aubrey Nelson, Clinical Therapist at Sea Glass Mental Health

AUBREY NELSON

MC, LAC

Meet The Author

Aubrey is a Clinical Counselor at Sea Glass Mental Health. She specializes in anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, trauma, ADHD, and ASD. She is trained in EMDR and has a warm, authentic, and humorous approach to therapy. 

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