Like denial, dissociation protects us from overwhelming input. Where denial distances us from a thought or feeling, dissociation distances us from our own felt experience and body.
Dissociation can be short-term, such as listening to headphones and spacing out during a dental appointment, or long-term, such as feeling floaty and disjointed for months after a car crash. It can be local, withdrawing from a painful body part that has often received blows, or global, leaving the body entirely and remembering a difficult scene as if floating above it.
Dissociation is one of the few tools that young children have to cope with trauma and abuse, especially if they lack a secure attachment to a parent or caretaker. Recurring trauma can eventually lead to compartmentalized awareness, also known as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
Even without trauma, we are taught to dissociate from our bodies in many ways as we’re growing up. In search of approval, we learn to look to our parents, our teachers, our peers, and the TV to find out how we feel and what we need, instead of asking our own bodies.
Re-associating, becoming more present in our bodies, is a complex, worthwhile journey. As we remember to notice what we’re feeling in the moment, we can make choices that suit us uniquely well.
Since disconnection happens for a reason, noticing it and thus beginning the process of reconnecting may bring up strong emotions, thoughts, memories, or sensations. Proceed gently and slowly, and reach for support when you need it.
Noticing dissociation can be difficult, since dissociation is all about not noticing what’s happening. Feelings of vagueness, fogginess, distraction, or confusion can be indicators. Walking into door frames, dropping things, forgetting appointments, or standing in a room wondering what your errand was can be clues as well.
How do you feel now?
One way to track dissociation is to make a practice of asking yourself how you feel. Stop and notice at least once a day, perhaps at breakfast, or after meditating. If you find it hard to answer, or find yourself thinking of something else instead, you may be disconnected from your body. Simply notice that for a few breaths.
Once you’ve noticed that you are dissociated, ask yourself if you’d like to reconnect further right now. If the answer is No, stop doing anything that requires presence to be safe (using power tools, etc.), and let the process drop this time. You have already taken a big step forward by noticing dissociation while it’s happening.
If you do want to reconnect, you can try one or more of:
- Breathe deeply into your belly several times.
- Notice your feet. Push against the ground, stomp, or go for a walk.
- Put a hand over your heart, on your belly, or somewhere else that feels comforting.
- Drink water or tea.
- Sit in meditation for a few minutes.
- Anything that you’ve noticed helps you connect with yourself.
You can also gently look back in time to see what might have triggered dissociation, and see if there’s anything you can change about your situation to make it more hospitable for you.
Step by step
Even thinking about dissociation can be hard. Did you find yourself getting distracted while reading this article? I had to re-focus several times while writing it. Dissociation can be both an important survival skill, and a frustrating roadblock when it doesn’t happen by choice. Repeatedly, patiently noticing and reconnecting leads step by step to renewed aliveness, awareness, and enjoyment of life.
In her book The Obsidian Mirror: Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse, Louise Wisechild documents her journey of re-association in vivid, engaging, sometimes disturbing detail. This book has been a big inspiration in my own life for healing and becoming a healer.