'Checked Out' From Reality? 5 Strategies To Cope With Dissociation

Photo: Getty
upset woman sitting in bed

Dissociation is the ability to unconsciously remove yourself from threatened or inflicted pain or injury. It can be frightening but it's also more common than you think. 

How has this begun for you? If so, it can be helpful to know how to stop it. 

Why is it a challenge to learn how to stop dissociating?

First, because it's a learned behavior that may have begun when you were very young.

Also, dissociation is glamorized. It's often depicted in movies as an attribute given to many superheroes.

Consider Wonder Woman, Batman, and even Antman. They all have a hyperawareness of themselves in their surroundings that allows them to see themselves from different angles as they prepare to battle. 

They dissociate so that they may protect themselves. 

RELATED: Stop Dismissing My PTSD Just Because You Can't See It

Thinking of dissociation in this way may help explain why when someone realizes that they dissociate, they can almost feel like they have magical powers, this ability to remove themselves from the pain that is being inflicted upon them and not feel it. 

Like most other powers, this ability comes as a surprise to those who have it, because it's performed unconsciously — that is, without the person knowing that they are doing it.

Take the story of Susana for example. She grew up in a single-parent family in a wealthy neighborhood. Her mother was outwardly successful and able to provide for her materially. 

But, inside, her mother partied a little too much with the men she dated, often passing out, leaving Susana alone with the latest boyfriend, who still wanted to party. 

Susanna was sexually abused and began to cope with it by dissociating. But no one knew because Susana looked to be a high achiever.

What are some reasons for dissociation?

Dissociation is a significant response to the anxiety generated from traumatic events. If you've ever experienced a traumatic event such as being in a car crash, seeing someone shot, being in a fire, your initial response may be to feel that this is unreal. 

You may have problems fitting the pieces of your memory together, forgetting parts of what you witnessed or experienced. This dissociative response is a normal effect of trauma.

However, if your dissociation began in childhood and continues to the present, you may be like the Superheroes you admire and have had a traumatic childhood. 

Dissociation, at its core, is a way for you to protect yourself.

In many ways, it may seem like a neat trick, this ability to see yourself as if you are watching yourself from the ceiling, or sitting next to yourself.

Or having a hyper-awareness that makes you feel almost like you have an eye in the back of your head and can see or feel who is entering a room or coming towards you, allowing you to scan to see who may be a threat.

Dissociation is often developed as a way of dealing with inescapable traumas of emotional and or physical pain for which there's no other option. 

The child feels isolated, that there's no one to protect them. The adult feels there's no place to hide. 

Dissociation is a way of enduring overwhelming pain. Dissociative episodes can be fleeting, or prolonged in high-stress situations.

To survive, you learn to numb yourself to the onslaught of the emotional, and, or physical attack so that it cannot harm you, because you cannot feel it. 

You are no longer in your body. It’s the ultimate way of ensuring someone can’t hurt you. 

Dissociation is a protective technique forged in pain.

But don’t envy those that dissociate, because it's a costly self-protective skill. And once established, it can be triggered throughout one’s life as a stress response. 

Remember, those who dissociate often don’t know they are doing this. This means at times they are protecting themselves more actively when they don't actually need to.

RELATED: If You Can't Stop Thinking About Something That Happened To You, You Might Be Experiencing Trauma

What triggers dissociation?

Being in a traumatic situation, or even a potentially traumatic situation, can trigger a cascade of traumatic memories and feelings leading to dissociation.  

Sounds: Hearing two people arguing even if you don’t know them.

Touch: Being in an intimate situation with a new boyfriend.

Sights: Arriving in an area that feels familiar.

Smell or taste: Smelling or tasting something that feels uncomfortable.

5 signs of dissociation.

Finding yourself, watching yourself, even if it is just out of the corner of your eye. Or seeing yourself from the ceiling, or the chair next to you.

Difficulty following what is said in a stressful situation. This doesn't mean being bored and tuning out but feeling like people are speaking a foreign language. 

Losing time and unable to remember what you did. Again, this isn’t due to boredom, or your mind taking a break during a car ride and tuning out. No, this is losing time, not knowing what transpired.

Finding yourself anesthetizing yourself through drinking, or drug use.

Here are 5 techniques for how to stop dissociating that are designed to bring you back to reality.

1. Give yourself a one-armed hug.

This reassures you that you're safe.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Hey You! Want more of YourTango's best articles, seriously addictive horoscopes and top expert advice? Sign up to get our free daily newsletter!

2. Say a soothing two-syllable word to provide your mind with something else to think about as you relax your body.

This can be your special neutral word, or two sounds you like — something like win-dow, ap-ple — designed to anchor you back into you. 

Close your eyes. Allow your word to effortlessly bounce in your mind for a minute or less.

3. Speak an affirmation aloud as you stroke one of your arms.

Make it something simple such as, "I can take care of me. I am safe. I am worthy of self-care. I’m perfectly imperfect."

4. Try a walking meditation

An easy grounding technique that you can do as you shop in the store, chase after your children, or in between meetings is to use your walking to meditate.  

Take a step with your left foot and say to yourself, "I’m safe."

Take a step with your right foot and say, "I’m home."

Repeat as you walk, "I’m safe. I’m home," reassuring yourself that you're safe within yourself.

5. Chew on an ice cube.

The cold and the crunch can snap you back into the present.

Dissociation is very treatable.

If you're dissociating due to a recent traumatic event, in time this may take care of itself. It's important to keep speaking about this. Talking helps move memories to a part of the brain that allows you to more easily process them.

However, if you keep reliving your recent traumatic event, or those from your childhood, it's highly recommended that you see a trained and licensed mental health therapist. 

Dissociation is seen in those who have anxiety, PTSD, and more serious mental illnesses. It is very treatable by trained, licensed mental health professionals where specific evidence-based techniques such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, can be effective. 

Your therapist will help you tolerate your traumatic memories in the present without needing to escape from your body. 

If you're trying to figure out how to stop dissociating, be kind to yourself, and get the professional help you deserve. 

RELATED: How To Turn Your Trauma Into Something Meaningful

Patricia A. O'Gorman, Ph.D. is a trauma and addiction psychologist, speaker, and author of 9 books on resiliency, women, and self-parenting. Learn more on her website.