What is Dissociation?

Dissociation is a phenomenon or defence mechanism designed to protect us from the threat. It’s a state that one can move into when they sense danger. Sometimes when a person is in a dangerous or threatening situation a person will freeze kind of like a deer in headlights. Once the threat has passed, so does the freeze response.

Dissociation feels like zoning out, moving into a trance state, feeling lost, foggy, numb, confused. Opioids flood the nervous system and send a floating warm sensation throughout the body. It is not uncommon for a person who experiences dissociation to want to stay in this state as it is actually quite a pleasant experience. What is not so pleasant is when an adult finds that they do not have control over their present state especially when in a fight with a loved one or experience a trigger (the past adverse event feels like it’s in the present moment).

For others, this freeze response can turn into a dissociated state which can last for hours and in the very worst-case scenario last for days.

Dr. Stephen Porges has informed the trauma community about the immobilization response that is hardwired in all humans. This immobilized response exists in all of us. It’s a protective response to extreme threats. One could argue its mother natures way of protecting us from the horror of sudden death.

Porges also speaks to the freeze response as being an important reaction to threat alongside the fight-flight response.

However, for some people who have experienced more than one adverse childhood event, they experience dissociation as a hardwired defence response that can become a state. It is not uncommon for adults who have experienced childhood adverse events to dissociate regularly. This can be very upsetting for a person who begins therapy and learns that they do not have control over this reaction.

The first step to healing from the feeling of being out of control is to simply log or keep track of when you are dissociating. Track each day of the week and divide it into hours marking how many times you noticed that you were not present in the moment. Once you understand when you are dissociating you can then begin to use skills to bring you back to the present.

The following ways are helpful for retraining a new brain pathway of being present.

Cold temperature:

  • Running cold water on your hands
  • Splashing cold water on your face
  • Putting something frozen on your neck or body.
  • Taking a cold shower
  • Drinking cold water slowly

Grounding:

  • Identify five things you see in the room.
  • Identify four, three, two, one…
  • Identify five things you hear.
  • Identify four, three, two, one…