Part of the experience of a traumatic event is a disconnect between the brain and the body. This disconnect or dissociation can become established as a pattern that continues to happen occasionally in response to triggers long after that person has survived the trauma.
However, it’s really important to become connected to your body and its sensations!
The feelings our bodies get are supposed to help guide us in making decisions, as well as helping us know what we like and what we don’t like. Whether it’s a butterfly in your stomach or a knot in your gut, a lump in your throat or a tightness in your chest, tension in your shoulders or heart pounding in your chest, whatever the feelings are they are guided by our body’s feelings as it reacts to our surrounding environment.
But what if you were disconnected from those feelings? What if you didn’t feel those body sensations? What if you didn’t feel the messages from your body’s natural rhythms and flows, such as eating or sleeping?
In this week’s blog we’re going to talk about dissociation.
Dissociation is a Disconnect Between Mind and Body
Dissociation is any form of disconnect from our bodies, sometimes it can be just “spacing out,” but sometimes it can be going into a completely different personality.
There are major forms of dissociation, as is the case of Dissociative Identity Disorder or Multiple Personality Disorder, which is the most extreme form of a disconnect with one’s self and body. A person goes into a dissociative state to the extent they have two completely different personalities in each state that doesn’t always remember what their body does while in the other state.
While all forms of dissociation and disconnect have childhood trauma, including attachment trauma as its underlying cause, patients with Dissociative Identity Disorder usually have other forms of severe childhood abuse and neglect as part of their childhood experience.
For more information on Dissociative Identity Disorder, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has some information here.
There are varying degrees of dissociation and disconnect, and it depends on the degree of disconnect that is required for psychological survival. Dissociation is a survival mechanism for high intensity emotions from which the brain has to disconnect. This is a mental escape, not a physical escape. In this sense, dissociation is everything from a different mental state to having your thoughts anywhere except for what’s happening in the here and now.
Other forms of a higher degree of dissociation that you may be familiar with are children with Reactive Attachment Disorder. Parents are very familiar with the different mental states of the kids when they dissociate in response to a trigger that causes intense emotions they aren’t able to handle.
From my personal life, there were times my son would go into his room and he would go into a different mental world. There he would experience high intensity of feelings that he couldn’t manage, and because he felt unsafe, he wouldn’t come to me to help him regulate. He would jump and play around in the room. This was not a schizophrenic episode at all, as he knew very well what he was doing and that it wasn’t real. However, it was a happier place for him to go to mentally when his body was experiencing such high intensity of feelings that he couldn’t manage, which in turn caused him to have to psychologically disconnect from his body.
Another adoptive girl I worked with would describe to me “My Happy Place” that she would have her mind wander off to. She knew it wasn’t real, but she also experienced difficulty regulating her emotions and had a lot of hyperactivity. When things got too intense for her, she would rather send her mind to a different place than be stuck in her body with all of these high emotions she didn’t know how to handle without getting violent.
These are all examples of the major forms of dissociation, but there are much more common ways of disconnecting and dissociating to which you may relate.
More Common Forms of Dissociation
The more minor forms are frequently experienced by many people without them even realizing it. People often think that they’re just not concentrating well, have hyperactivity, or are getting old with bad memory, not realizing that it’s a minor form of dissociation that they can change.
The more minor forms of dissociation are so subtle they happen all the time without us realizing that we’re disconnecting for a moment. However, even the minor forms of dissociation and disconnect are survival responses to intense and uncomfortable emotions, whether anger, boredom, or fear.
Let’s look at a few examples of these minor forms of dissociation!
You may walk away from a conversation and not remember the person’s name or much of what they said. You may be in a conversation with them, and though you’re looking at them in the eye, smiling and nodding, you’re mentally somewhere else.
There may be periods of your childhood or your life that you don’t remember.
Or, you just maybe going through the emotions of life, but your thoughts are on something else.
Perhaps you have gone on a walk, and you were thinking about some possible thing that might happen in the future or thinking about work today and what your boss told you, but getting back, you don’t remember anything about the walk.
You may have driven to work, only to arrive and realize you don’t remember any details about the drive.
Thus, part of the minor forms of dissociation involve bad memory, especially short-term memory loss. You come home from work, are thinking about other things, and not paying attention or your brain is not recording where you placed your keys, phone, or jacket.
These are all minor forms of dissociation as the brain is disconnected from what the body is doing and how the body is feeling.
There are many different ways to go into a different world mentally to experience a different emotional state. Music, books, and movies are some of the most common ways to mildly dissociate from our life. Even still, you may read a book or watch a movie, and at the end, realize there were sections you do not remember at all!
When we’re engaged in the present moment and connected with self and others, this is the opposite of dissociation.
When we have our thoughts on anything other than what we are doing right now, this is a minor form of dissociation.
Disconnected From Natural Body Rhythms
Then there are the body’s rhythms and flows that tells us we are hungry, thirsty, tired, falling, off balance, or in pain.
Our early emotional environment starting prenatally and into the second year of life, sets the threshold for these body feelings, especially pain.
For people with these early stressful emotional environments, it is common to be disconnected from one or many of these natural body sensations.
For example, common experiences can include the following examples:
A person may not feel hungry until they’re starving and have to eat now!
Others will not feel thirsty until they need water right now, or may have difficulty perceiving hunger and thirst until they are irritable, have a headache, or are having major cravings for sugar and sweets!
For others, they push themselves physically and never feel those messages from their body that tells them they are tired, until their body completely gives out and collapses into a deep fatigue.
You may not feel your stomach filling up or feel full until it is hugely distended you stop eating, because of the physical pain from your stomach!
You may not feel precisely where your body is in space, and tend to walk into things or take missteps. You may not feel well balanced and you find yourself tripping, falling more, or having more injuries.
This can also play out in having more injuries and accidents on the road, because you aren’t sensing exactly where you’re in space and how fast you’re going due to these altered sensations from which your brain is partially disconnected.
Being accident-prone is actually a way in which many people have discovered that they have a mild form of dissociation, that their communication pathways between their body and brain are off and they have early childhood attachment trauma.
Jon Allen brings dissociation, attachment trauma and being accident-prone together in his book Mentalizing In the Development and Treatment of Attachment Trauma (2012).
For some kids, they don’t feel their bladder filling up, and will wet the bed at night long past the age at which it can be normal.
Pain is another body sensation from which one can be disconnected. Sometimes, kids and adults with insecure attachments or Attachment Disorder can experience a large amount of pain and hardly feel it at all. Some children with Attachment Disorder have fallen down 30 stairs, bounced up and kept going, feeling no pain.
Yet saying this, the whole pain pathway is one that really gets dysregulated in response to early childhood attachment trauma. So, while at times a person cannot feel themselves walking on a broken leg, small cuts or any kind of physical hurt they have an out of proportion pain response!
Interesting Behaviors to Compensate for Not Feeling Body Sensations
This brings us to the next topic, because when a person does not feel all of their bodily feelings, they develop some interesting behaviors in order to compensate for that disconnect.
Whereas others can rely on their bodily feelings telling them that they should slow down, that they’re hungry, or that they’re on unsteady ground and should hold on to something. Those who have a disconnect never get those kinds of messages.
So dissociation is part of the parasympathetic freeze response, they need to bring their sympathetic system back on, which is their fight or flight, and involves a large rush of adrenaline.
So, you may find yourself doing some behaviors and actions that can seem extreme to others just in order to really feel your body.
For this reason, some people cut their body, usually their wrists. This is a way to feel something rather than the numb and emptiness a person can feel when they’re disconnected from their body.
High-adrenaline activities, like how we’ve talked about addiction to excitement. This is another way to come out of their dissociation by turning on their sympathetic state and adrenaline.
Also, when a person has this sort of dissociation, they have to figure out ways to keep their body functioning when they aren’t able to get those messages. They can start to control their food, for examples, always carrying food around so that when they finally get their hunger signal, they have food.
If they have a hard time feeling when their stomach is full, they may start to strictly control their food portions at meals, because they can’t rely on their stomach to give them the message at the appropriate time.
Then there are those with short-term memory loss, and they write everything down! People’s names, things to do when they get home, and where they put important things.
This Is Me – What Do I Do?!
Finally, let’s talk about what to do if you relate to this, because you may spend some of your time in a major or mild form of dissociation and disconnect.
To build your resilience and time out of dissociation, you have to do intentional work to rewire your brain and nervous system. Otherwise, it will continue to use this as a survival mechanism for intense or uncomfortable emotions.
The topics and activities of “Being in the Present Moment” addresses mild dissociation.
- Book: Arriving at Your Own Door: 108 Lessons in Mindfulness, by jon Kabat-Zinn
Body Identification and Scan is a great way to keep yourself out of dissociative states.
There are 2 exercises I will describe here that are both very helpful, although when described, can sound cheesy!
- Peter Levine talks about an exercise to do briefly whenever you are in the shower to help remember to do this. As you stand in the shower, look at a part of your body, say your left arm. Really look at your arm, as if you are studying it and getting to know it for the first time. Move it around, and tell yourself “This is my left arm.” Really own it and become aware of its movements and how it feels as it moves to reestablish that nervous system connection between your arm and your brain.
- Perform a body scan by laying down on your bed or on the couch. Start at one end of your body, usually your toes, put all of your awareness on your toes. Move them around and feel how that movement feels. Then move up to your whole foot, and so on.
Slow Down the Pace of Your Life
All stress and emotional states are easier for your brain and body to manage when it has time to process and plan its response. Slowing the pace down helps you be able to tolerate feeling uncomfortable feelings, whereas if your brain thinks it has to rush off to the next thing, it will need to dissociate and disconnect in order to help you handle the next thing to do. Slowing down the fast pace that we have in our modern society can be huge for someone with tendencies to disconnect from their body.
These are ways to build the resilience and rewire the brain and nervous system. If you find yourself starting to check out, there are things you can do:
- Grounding exercises – pushing your feet into the floor, rubbing your thighs are great ways to keep yourself engaged in the present moment.
- Move with awareness in that moment. Walk around and really feel your knees bending and your feet lifting off and touching down to the ground.
- Most importantly, identify the triggers. As you notice yourself going into these dissociative states, identify which emotion it was that sent you there. What happened that caused you to have that emotion, and then address it in therapy.
Most often, we’re so used to spacing out and disconnecting mentally from ourselves and our environment, that we’re no longer even aware of what emotions send us into that state, let alone, what happened to cause that emotion.
Another great thing I recommend especially for those recovering from trauma and who need to do some body work. Go and get a massage, but rather than letting your mind wander while you get the massage, pay attention and keep your awareness on their touch. Notice exactly how much pressure they are putting on your tissues and how the muscles move under their hands. This will be a great exercise in rewiring your nervous system to help it connect back to your body and its sensations.
It is a very common practice to mildly dissociate and disconnect from your body when you have a history of trauma.
This is a sign that you can use to show you that you had high intensity emotions as an infant and that for whatever reasons, your primary caregiver was unable to help you with resulting in attachment trauma.
This results in a continuation of body dysregulation and emotional dysregulation that leads to difficulty in feeling and understanding your body’s sensations and messages.
Tracking our internal states is an important process in healing from trauma and earning a secure attachment.
It requires intentional work to rewire the brain and nervous system from attachment trauma and body dysregulation including major or minor forms of dissociation.
I encourage you to start with one of the activities mentioned above on a daily basis as you build your capacity to remain engaged with yourself and others, and to help you avoid spacing out. This will be a process and will not change overnight.
But take courage, it’ll slowly build your capacity to stay engaged, so that you’ll be more aware, it’ll help you recognize those triggers, and it will help you understand what you need to address in therapy.