Beating Dissociation: Understanding the Why Makes the How Easy

Trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk shared that one of his patients who had been sexually abused as a child remembers feeling like the abuse happened to someone else. She said that when the abuse occurred, “she floated up to the ceiling, looking down on some other little girl.” Her memory of the abuse was watching it happen but not experiencing it herself. She even drew a picture of her face up in the clouds watching what was happening to her.[1] Does this experience resonate with you?

Many abuse survivors say that they felt like they weren’t in their bodies when the abuse occurred. The technical term for this experience is dissociation. These are normal and understandable reactions. You can’t expect your mind and body to be completely overwhelmed and still stay fully engaged in what’s happening. Peter Levine explains that dissociation “helps to make the unbearable bearable.”[2] We often talk about how good your brain is at protecting you. This is another way that your brain tried to protect you from experiencing pain in a traumatizing situation.

In addition to a feeling of floating outside your body, dissociation can manifest itself in lots of ways, and it can keep occurring long after abuse has happened. For example, sometimes people describe feeling like the world is distant and fuzzy, like things aren’t quite real. Also, people describe losing track of large stretches of time. For example, you might arrive somewhere but not have a clear memory of how you got there, or you might be driving down the highway and all of a sudden realize that you’re not really focused on what’s going on around you.

We’ve all felt this to a certain extent. Who hasn’t had the experience of doing a task for the thousandth time and going on autopilot? But dissociation becomes a problem when it turns into a numbing strategy that doesn’t allow you to fully enjoy and experience your life in the present. Dissociation can prevent you from feeling joy at your daughter’s first birthday party or feeling sorrow when you lose a loved one. When you aren’t quite present, you can start to feel like life is passing you by. You might feel more like a zombie than a person. Van der Kolk explains that if you can’t fully experience what’s happening around you, it’s “impossible to feel fully alive.”[3]

If you experience dissociation, don’t despair. This is a normal reaction that lots of trauma survivors experience. And there are tools that you can use to help yourself engage with what’s going on around you. Grounding techniques are one of the best ways that you can bring yourself into the present.[4] There are a variety of grounding techniques you can try: mindful walking, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing, etc. Practice using a variety of techniques until you find a strategy that works for you. Healing is a process, and every step you take makes a difference.

[1] Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score. New York, NY: Penguin Books, p. 134.
[2] Levine, P. A. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, p. 50.
[3] The body keeps the score, p. 67.
[4] Najavits, L. M. (2002). Seeking safety: A treatment manual for PTSD and substance abuse. New York, NY: The Guildford Press, p. 133.