Ever felt like you were a completely separate entity to your own body? Like you were slightly to the left. Always playing catch up as your body propelled forward without you. Ah yes. That would be something called dissociation. A word I only grew familiar with, within recent years. A unique experience that is often too difficult to comprehend, let alone explain. Which is really why the majority of people don’t even know how to define their experiences, or are aware that they’re experiencing dissociation, let alone talk about it.
I first became aquatinted with dissociation over the last few years, when it frequently occurred during times of heightened stress, in particular during my days at University. In theory, it makes perfect sense that your brain could have such a response to stress, if we’re thinking in terms of ‘flight or fight’. But dissociation’s response to stressors is usually on the lines of ‘How about we completely detach ourself from this situation, so we don’t have to deal with it all!’ Sounds like a great alternative at the time!
And like most academics, I wanted to know why? Why my brain reacted in such a way. Why I started dealing with life’s hardships by distancing myself and no longer feeling a part of my own body. But even today we lack so much understanding and research surrounding this area. Which makes it difficult for GP’s and therapists to advise on how to alleviate some of the symptoms of dissociation.
In the early days, I didn’t find my bouts of dissociation to be problematic per se. In fact, I much preferred dissociating, rather than having a panic attack. But here’s where it becomes problematic. Because you don’t feel much at all, and your brain refuses to process anything. It became incredibly disturbing the more I experienced dissociation, especially when I no longer felt present or living. But how do you even begin to describe that to a lay person? Especially if they’ve never experienced it themselves.
My worst days of dissociation were most prevalent during my gap year. I was bound with so many overwhelming emotions. I felt stuck in life, was eager to move abroad, all the while becoming increasingly frustrated with my career prospects, or lack there of. I dwelled, worried and spent most days stressing about my future. The pressure I was putting on myself became far too overwhelming for my brain to process effectively, and so dissociation became my-go-to coping mechanism. All emotions and feelings were drained out of me. I sat in theatres watching countless movies with an inability to connect, concentrate, or feel present at all. No matter what I did I couldn’t quite pull myself back into my reality. But it wasn’t until the people around me began to notice how disengaged I became with life. Only then it started to become a very scary and uncomfortable experience.
Now I’m not the first to talk about this and I’m certainly not the last. But being more vocal about dissociation has since become a source of help and reassurance for me and many of my friends, who were previously unable to identify this bizarre experience.
And although I’m no expert at dealing with dissociation, here’s a couple of things I do to help bring me back down to earth:
1- I learn to accept and recognise that I’m dissociating. I don’t fight the feeling, and getting frustrated only makes it harder for me to alleviate the feelings that come with dissociation. For me, just accepting that it’s okay for a while, and riding it out helps me get out of dissociation a lot quicker than panicking about it. However, this comes with practice.
2- I use grounding techniques because when you’re not feeling particularly present, using all your senses can help stimulate parts of your brain and assist you with engaging with the world.
3- I do things to make me feel alive. When there’s no alternative, I like to do things to get my blood pumping. Anything from engaging in exercise, activities that get your heart racing, going to gigs or blasting your favourite music, even having sex. Anything that truly helps you reconnect with your body and your mind.
Admittedly, this is still something I want to know how to deal with better, so I’m hoping that by talking about it, other people might be able to share what works for them, so leave some comments on this post so that we can handle it together, as it’s vital that we talk amongst our peers about our experiences with dissociation and educate those around us. Because its probable that a lot more people have and will continue to encounter dissociation at some point during their lives.