Everyone experiences trauma. Whether it’s a car accident, a serious illness, or the painful loss of a loved one leading to extreme grief, trauma is a significant part of life. When the body or mind undergoes emotional or physical trauma, it does everything that it can to protect you from additional pain, stress, or suffering. There are many ways that the brain and body attempt to do this. Dissociation is one such method of handling and coping with traumatic events. (1)
What Is Dissociation?
Have you ever driven somewhere and not remembered how you got there? Have you ever felt out of sorts, like something is off? Do you sometimes feel a sense of confusion, disconnect, or misalignment? Maybe it seems like you’re outside your body looking in, or like parts of your body don’t even belong to you. Maybe you don’t understand your own feelings or emotions and have the impression that they’re not really your thoughts. (1,2,3)
If you have ever had an incident like that, you might be experiencing dissociation — also known as dissociating. (1,3)
Dissociation is a mental process during which you begin to disconnect from feelings, memories, or thoughts. You may even lose your sense of identity or your concept of self. (1,3,4)
Dissociation is a defense mechanism for dealing with trauma. It is the brain’s way of trying to take you away from feelings or situations that are emotionally or physically difficult for you, while putting you in a more comfortable, easier-to-deal-with space and mindset. Dissociative episodes can be very brief and may only last a few minutes, or they can go on for hours, days, or even weeks. (1,3,5)
What Are Some Signs of Dissociation?
Not sure if what you’re going through is dissociation? Although the following can also be symptomatic of other disorders, symptoms of dissociation may include: (1,3,4,5)
Cognitive difficulties, such as trouble concentrating or thinking
Difficulties handling strong emotions
Drastic changes in mood
Experiencing “derealization,” which is living in an alternate reality or having the impression that the world is distorted or unreal
Feeling obligated to behave a certain way or like you “should” do certain things
Having identity issues, such as feeling or behaving like someone else, or in ways that are out of character
Trouble remembering things, even important information about yourself (when not an age-related memory loss or due to illness or injury)
Unexplained and perhaps irrational emotions
Escapism vs. Dissociation
Escapism and dissociation are both basic instincts — natural responses not only to trauma, but also to less-severely troublesome or overwhelming situations. They are both ways your mind and body protect you and support your self-preservation. But they are not the same.
Escapism is a lesser version of dissociation and is often considered healthy. It is usually something you do by choice, to distract yourself or get away from something stressful to feel better. For example, entertainment is a form of escapism. You might “escape” by calling a friend, going for a run, playing a game, reading a book, or watching a movie. (6,7,8)
Escapism is relaxation. It’s safety and comfort. It’s “going to your happy place,” but only for a little while.
Dissociation, on the other hand, is a clinical mental disorder. It is much more serious than escapism. Dissociation is one way the mind attempts to deal with intense or ongoing stress, such as that of a single major traumatic event or continuous, long-term trauma. (1,3)
Do you ever think, during times of excruciating pain or major sadness, that you just wish you could be somebody else or live in a different world? Dissociation is your mind trying to make that happen for you, without you even realizing it. Your brain is trying to take care of you by altering your reality to one that hurts less. (8)
However, living in another reality can be dangerous, especially if it is beyond your control or occurs frequently or for extended periods. (8)
There are four types of dissociative disorders: (1,3,4, 9)
Depersonalization disorder: This involves feeling detached from your own life.
Dissociative amnesia: With this type of disorder, you forget the details of a traumatic event, entirely blocking out certain periods of time surrounding the incident.
Dissociative fugue: People with dissociative fugue forget who they are and events from their past.
Dissociative identity disorder (DID): In this case, people develop two or more distinct personalities. You have probably heard of someone having “multiple personalities.” DID is the new, updated name for what was formerly known as multiple personality disorder.
Structural dissociation is a theory that explains what happens when someone develops DID. The theory says that everyone is born with multiple personalities. But as they develop during childhood, most people manage to integrate all of those personalities into a single identity. However, some children may undergo trauma before their various personalities unite. This can result in one or more personalities remaining disconnected from the rest.
Someone suffering from any of these four disorders should most likely be treated with psychotherapy.
How Is Dissociation Linked to Chronic Health?
Research has shown that people who have experienced trauma in their lives or have chronic pain tend to have episodes of dissociation more frequently than those who don’t. (2,3)
This can be true of many sorts of pain or trauma. Remember that trauma isn’t only traced to one single event, such as an accident. Trauma can also come about if someone has been dealing with a chronic illness for a long time, or it might be the result of having suffered from longstanding abuse or neglect as a child. (6,7)
In fact, “adverse childhood experiences” are often the cause of chronic illness. And chronic illness frequently leads to dissociation. In a study of people with chronic pain, every participant who was tested reported dissociating when their pain was worst. 2,3,6,7)
What’s Going On in Our Bodies When We Dissociate?
As humans, it’s normal for us to want to get relief from pain as quickly as possible. With dissociation, it’s like our brain is flipping a switch and forcing us to step out of our ailing bodies to find instant relief. But your body doesn’t ask you if you want to dissociate; it just whisks you away from your present reality, even if the timing is bad — such as when your kids really need you or you’re in a meeting at work. (8)
If you’re dissociating, there are probably some underlying and bigger problems at work.
Psychologists believe that dissociation is really a nervous system disorder that sometimes affects the entire body. If the central nervous system is compromised or dysfunctional, that might be what’s causing someone to have dissociative episodes. (8,10)
The mind and body are so interconnected that some people who develop dissociation also develop physical symptoms. Not only is stress a major cause of dissociation, but often, different forms of stress or emotional issues manifest as physical ailments. This is called somatization. (11)
For example, when you’re stressed, you might also have a headache, nausea, stiffness and joint pain, or an upset stomach. In fact, this somatization likely only worsens the dissociative episodes as the brain attempts to distance itself from the symptoms.
Can Toxins Cause Dissociation?
It may be in a roundabout way, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that yes, toxins are associated with dissociation.
For starters, toxicity causes countless diseases and other health conditions. Toxins lead to pain and inflammation. And once again, attempting to deal with chronic or excessive pain or trauma is the main reason that a brain decides to dissociate. Those who are sick and don’t feel well either physically or emotionally are more likely to experience dissociation. And toxins are often at the root of those illnesses.
But there may be another set of circumstances at play. Some research suggests that dissociation may be linked to dysfunction in both the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). (12,13,14,15,16)
The HPA axis refers to the communication pathways between the hypothalamus in the brain, which coordinates endocrine system responses, and the brain’s pituitary gland, which releases hormones that affect endocrine function throughout the body. These parts of the brain are also in constant communication with the adrenal glands, which are located on the kidneys. (9,17)
The HPA axis therefore controls the function of the adrenal glands, testes or ovaries, and thyroid. It also affects growth, milk production, and water balance.
The ANS is a nerve network that runs throughout the body, sending signals between the brain and most of your internal organs. It controls unconscious processes such as breathing, digestion, heart rate, and more. (18,19)
Studies have proven that toxins — in particular, certain chemicals, drugs, andheavy metals — may compromise the ANS. (20,21)
In addition, research shows that environmental toxins such as chemicals, heavy metals, herbicides, pesticides, and other toxic compounds seem to have a direct and detrimental effect on the HPA axis. (22,23,24)
Because an imbalance in the ANS or the HPA axis or both may be correlated with dissociation, it is appropriate to assume that toxins, through an indirect pathway, are a likely cause of dissociation.
This link could also be due to the fact that the HPA axis helps the body and mind to manage stressors. And when the HPA axis isn’t performing optimally, you’re not going to be able to handle stress as well. And as we’ve seen, excess stress can lead to dissociation. (9)
What Can You Do to Manage or Treat Dissociation?
One of the most important things to do to address dissociation is to work with a qualified mental health professional. They can help you to work on any underlying problems and to figure out the best approach for you to get better. Everyone’s needs are different, and a mental health professional can help you to find a treatment plan that works best for you.
Here are some other methods and grounding techniques that might help with dissociation.
Answer the call of nature
Getting outside and taking advantage of the great outdoors has been shown to provide all sorts of health benefits, including boosting immunity, improving mental health and mood, lowering blood pressure, promoting a healthy weight, reducing stress, and supporting heart health. Encouraging better mental health and overall wellness could help lessen risks of dissociation. (25,26,27,28)
Cut yourself some slack
Even if you have a zillion things on that never-ending to-do list, try not to over-to-do it. Forgive yourself if you don’t accomplish as much as you think you should have — or as much as someone else might have. You only have so much energy in any given day. People who use up all their energy reserves every day can end up feeling exhausted, leaving them more prone to dissociation. (29)
Do something hypnotizing
Hypnotherapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses hypnosis to put someone into a trance-like state of intense concentration and focus. If used effectively, hypnosis can be a great way to decrease the instances of dissociation. It does this by helping the hypnotized person address the trauma or stress that is at the root of their dissociation, and face and deal with any triggers by “rewiring” their thoughts about them. (30,31,10,11)
It also works to calm the mind and body and help cope with stressors. It can bring about feelings of confidence and give someone more authority over their life and their trauma. In fact, most people can learn to hypnotize themselves so that they have full control over the process. (10,11)
Some professionals believe that hypnosis is among the quickest ways to get to a voluntary state of healing.
Naturally, promoting that healthy environment within your body includes detoxing. Because toxicity has been shown to have a connection with dissociation, eliminate toxins to keep yourself healthier and more emotionally balanced.
Get a move on
Moving your body and staying active are important for staying healthy and reducing the tendency to dissociate. So get moving in whatever way you can. It doesn’t have to be a lot or for a long time, so try to do what’s possible for you right now — even if that’s just walking to the mailbox or around the block, or sweeping the floor. Any movement is good for you.
Make it count
You can’t do it all, so choose your activities wisely. Manage your energy carefully while you’re on this healing journey, and you’ll build more resiliency over time.
If you choose a means of escapism, make sure that it’s one that will make you feel good, give you rest, and leave you feeling happier and rejuvenated afterward. Cook your favorite dish. Listen to music. Maybe try to learn something new.
What you consider an escape is individual to you, so do what feels right. For some people, reading might be relaxing and peaceful — for others, it feels like work. Do what you love most, and go to that happy place.
Keep in mind
Mindfulness is a level of increased awareness that comes about by living in the moment, paying better attention, and focusing on your own mind and body in the present. It involves really getting to know and understand what’s going on in your head. (12,13)
Mindfulness can be a good means of addressing dissociation because it helps you recognize what is stressing you or causing you pain so that you can better reframe and resolve your triggers. In a study, researchers found that mindfulness meditation can increase brain wave frequencies that are linked to increased learning and better mental wellness. (11,12,13)
However, mindfulness is not recommended for everyone. For those currently experiencing significant physical or emotional pain, bringing you back into your mind may bring back your suffering to an extreme level so that it becomes acute or even intolerable.
Lean on somebody
It’s been proven that we have greater success when we attempt to heal among a community rather than alone. So don’t be afraid to turn to others for help or resources — whether that’s a family member, friend, life coach, mentor, social media support group, teacher, or therapist. (32,33,34)
Everyone has something different to offer to assist, encourage, or support you. It’s okay to depend on people when you’re trying to get better.
Mind Over Matter
Life is stressful. So there’s nothing wrong with wanting to step away sometimes and escape to the solace of your favorite podcast or a good cat video. But there might be a problem if you find that you’ve gone beyond a beneficial respite to a place where you have blackouts in your memories, don’t recognize yourself in the mirror, or can’t control where or when these escapes happen.
Dissociation is a common mental disorder among those who have experienced trauma in the past or who are currently. And if you feel that you might be at risk, seek treatment. Set your mind to getting help and getting back to being a happier, healthier you.
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