Imagine being able to take out anything that was unbearable and overwhelming from your experience and life. Imagine being able to reduce the intensity of negative emotions or traumatic memories or simply being able to find a way to remove yourself from a situation, in your own mind, when physical escape is not possible.
This, in my experience, is what dissociation is. An awesome case of our psyche protecting us from experiences that were too much for us to metabolise. Another useful description I have found is that of disconnection from oneself and the world around us. Elements that would normally be connected like thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories and beliefs become disconnected and come to live in separate rooms. They get put in an isolated cupboard for safe keeping.
It is in this sense that, for me, dissociation is actually a kickass superpower, an ingenious way that helps people to survive difficult situations, both growing up and in adult life. This ability to dissociate, if harnessed, can then be used therapeutically through supportive trauma-informed psychotherapy later in life.
Dissociation is a normal way to cope with abnormal circumstances. Examples of these might be the ones endured by people with experiences of trauma, abuse, early losses, neglect, bullying, fights in the home, violence and many others when too much stress overwhelms the nervous system.
What does dissociation look like?
Experiences of dissociation are on a continuum and can vary from person to person.
On one end we have everyday dissociation that we all experience. Things like daydreaming, zoning out, getting engrossed in a book or film so much so that you are not aware of your surroundings anymore. The more we move towards the other end of the continuum the more separated the different ‘rooms’ are from each other.
In my practice I have found it actually quite common to observe mildly dissociated ego states, parts of the person, experienced as switching moods. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the person may feel overwhelmingly sad, only for the feeling to dissipate just as quickly as it arrived. Or perhaps you can observe switching, often opposing, points of view in conversation, for example a sad, hopeless or anxious state, followed by a rapid switch into a critical angry mood. It can feel a little like different parts of the person are at war with each other and so the dissociation might be seen as a necessary attempt to keep them apart.
The more the underlying pain and trauma, the more extreme measures are necessary to keep the system up and running. On the more powerful end of dissociative phenomena people might not remember gaps of time for important events in their lives, have no memories from a specific time frame or ‘lose time’.
Some people may also have the experience of not being in their body, of feeling that their body is not theirs or observing themselves from the outside. This ability to leave one’s body and float away to the back of one’s head (or to New Zealand!) can sometimes be experienced by other people as the person switching off, as if they were not there. Or the person may actually faint or fall down.
Some people also report feeling a sense of unreality, as if their life wasn’t real, everyone being like actors in a movie. Other times, what happens is that different emotional aspects of the trauma get stored in separate areas of one’s bodies and are converted into physical symptoms.
I had the opportunity to learn about this whilst training with psychotherapist Mary-Clare de Echevarria on working with complex trauma and dissociation and whilst doing an observational placement at the Lishman Unit at the Bethlem Hospital, a neuropsychiatry ward. Here some of the residents there would experience physical symptoms that had a psychological origin. Examples of these were dissociative seizures, paralysis, difficulty with movement, walking and others.
And finally, in cases where the underlying trauma is very severe these different elements in separate rooms may actually not be aware of each other and function almost as 'different ways of being oneself', different identities, sometimes with different names, often with very distinct ages, thoughts, voices and mannerisms and a different set of beliefs. Some people may also hear these parts' voices in their head or picture them in some way.
In these cases, there can be an experience of almost being ‘taken over’ by something outside one's control, sometimes with awareness of what has gone on whilst they switched into a different state and sometimes with amnesia for this.
People with these experiences sometimes receive diagnoses of OSDD, Other Specified Dissociative Disorders or DID, Dissociative Identity Disorder, but not always. A lot of dissociative phenomena will be experienced by people with different diagnoses or no diagnosis at all. In fact, everyone is likely to experience dissociation in their lives in one form or another.
What to do about dissociation
If you are reading this article and you can recognise some of the symptoms described above, don’t worry! These symptoms are there for a reason and are automatic, survival ways that your mind has found to get through whatever you have gone through. With appropriate psychotherapy to increase coping skills and to address the underlying trauma, it is possible for people to get better and go on to live happier and more fulfilling lives.
I have written this brief article using my experience with dissociation whilst working as an integrative psychotherapist, offering counselling and psychotherapy in London, whilst doing additional training, but also observing my own experiences of dissociation in my everyday life and personal therapy.
If you are looking for counselling or psychotherapy for experiences of dissociation it might be worthwhile spending the time to find a therapist that can provide trauma therapy for the underlying pain and that is familiar with dissociation or dissociative disorders.
If you would like more information on anything mentioned in this article or if you have any questions or thoughts please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.
Republished from Welldoing.org