Dissociation is a natural coping response to traumatic experiences, extreme stress, and other difficult emotions. When you dissociate, your body and mind are protecting you from feeling completely flooded. You're essentially frozen and disconnected from your current circumstances.
Dissociation is a common symptom of many mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, dissociative identity disorder (DID), dissociative amnesia, and other dissociative disorders.
Signs That You May Struggle With Dissociation
Dissociation can come in many forms, and it isn't always apparent. Some common dissociative symptoms include:
frequently using drugs, alcohol, or other forms of escape to cope with difficult emotions
having ongoing flashbacks from the past
telling stories or recounting trauma without having much emotion connected to it
"checking out" during difficult moments
feeling like you are detached from your own body or the outside world (sometimes known as an out-of-body experience)
having an unusually high threshold for physical pain
How to Reduce Dissociation or Stop Dissociating When It Happens
Dissociation refers to disconnecting from surroundings, thoughts, feelings, and actions. In severe forms, it can manifest as complete amnesia, but in more subtle forms, it can present as a persistent sense of identity confusion or feeling disconnected from the external world. If you struggle with a dissociative disorder, the symptoms are significant enough to impact your daily life.
In general, awareness and grounding techniques can help you stop dissociating. These all can work immediately, but the effect may range from just a few minutes to a few hours.
Gently Acknowledge That You're Dissociating
When you note that you're experiencing dissociation, label the situation. It may be helpful to simply acknowledge, I'm dissociating right now. I feel detached and uncomfortable.
These internal statements act as a way of externalizing. By identifying your emotions calmly, you're also slightly removing yourself from the dissociative condition. With that, you may also be separating yourself from distressing feelings or remnants of traumatic events.
Engage in Box Breathing
Structured deep breathing can help regulate your autonomic nervous system. Box breathing (sometimes known as square breathing) is a mindfulness activity that focuses on taking deliberate breaths for 4 seconds each. Box breathing is simple and can be practiced anywhere. Simply breathe in for 4 seconds, inhale for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, and then hold the exhalation for 4 more seconds. Practice for at least a few minutes or until you feel a more stable sense of self.
Change the Temperature
One of the simplest grounding techniques is changing the immediate temperature. You can achieve this in several ways, including splashing cold water on your face, rubbing an ice cube on your arms, taking a hot shower, or going outside for a moment when it's very chilly out. The goal isn't necessarily to "shock" the body into arousal. Instead, it's to gently shake off the physical symptoms of dissociation.
Engage in a Sensory Experience
Dissociative experiences take you out of your body, so it's important to bring yourself back to the here and now. To stay grounded, you can engage in any one of the five senses. For example, some people might eat spicy food (to activate taste). Others might hold onto a piece of clay or a hard stone (for touch). It may also be helpful to engage in several sensory experiences simultaneously.
Write About Your Feelings
Writing can be a helpful coping mechanism for processing your thoughts, feelings, and needs. Consider setting a timer for 5-10 minutes to simply write down what's happening in your body. Identify any physical sensations or pressing emotions that come to mind. If you can draw this moment from any previous ones, make a note of it.
Get Physically Active
Exercise can be an important part of mental illness treatment. Physical activity is associated with reducing anxiety, improving self-esteem, and decreasing symptoms of depression. Even small bouts of movement can make a big difference, so consider taking a brisk walk, doing some gentle yoga stretches, or going for a quick run. These activities will act on both your nervous system and on the dissociation itself- they can also be helpful if you experience panic attacks or other related anxiety symptoms.
Support for Dissociation and Other Mental Health Conditions
At Resurface Group, we understand and respect how dissociation symptoms act as a form of self-protection. Your body is doing what it can to preserve its energy and safeguard itself from further harm. Dissociation is a natural defense mechanism, and it's not your fault if you're struggling.
That said, dissociation also comes with steep costs. It's hard to form secure attachments, take care of yourself, or enjoy the present moment when you're emotionally disconnected. Learning to cope with dissociation can take time, and our team is here to help you manage your automatic fight-or-flight response and develop adaptive coping strategies to use when you feel overwhelmed.
We offer unique, comprehensive treatment for all substance use disorders and mental health needs. Our new program, Resurface Connect, offers a virtual IOP that's in-network with most major insurance plans. Contact us today to speak with a mental health professional or one of our admissions representatives.