Have you ever found yourself sitting at the kitchen table, staring into space not for a minute or two as many do, but realise it has actually been an hour or two?
Do you often ‘lose time’ and can’t remember what you did during that time?

Mary dropped off the kids at school and the next thing she is aware of is being across the other side of the city, with a bag of items next to her in the car. She did not recall driving or shopping for the items and isn’t really sure why she is where she is. Can you relate to this? Do you stare into space?

You might be wondering, why do I do this, and is it normal? It’s called Dissociation.

Dissociation is an umbrella term used to describe the vast spectrum of ways our mind copes with extreme stress and trauma. It is quite common for people to experience mild forms of Dissociation after a stressful or overwhelming day, e.g. having no recollection of driving from A to B, or ‘spacing out’ when watching TV.

Dissociation Woman spaced out

Consequently, there is a direct relationship between the severity of the dissociation and the trauma that initially necessitated it. Our body has a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response which helps us save ourselves when we feel under physical, social, or emotional threat. However, if an individual is repeatedly forced into terrifying and traumatic situations where they cannot defend or save themselves, the brain resorts to ‘fright’ mode where the body shuts down, the brain disengages and we ‘play dead’. These occurrences typically arise to help the person cope with more severe forms of trauma, during which your capacity to cope is overloaded. Supportive research and brain scans show an absence of brain activity during dissociative episodes.

You may be wondering what to do? Let’s start by helping you understand Dissociation a little more.

Understanding Dissociation

  1. Depersonalisation – such as out of body experiences, prolonged disconnection from the present moment
  2. Derealisation – such as feeling like one’s body, life, or experience isn’t real, or ‘like a dream’
  3. Dissociative Amnesia – includes forgetting events that occurred in order to avoid memories of physical or emotional pain

The most severe form of dissociation is known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously Multiple Personality Disorder). This is where the severity and frequency of the experienced trauma is so extreme, that the only survival mechanism left is to pretend the abuse is happening to someone else (i.e. by creating an alternate entity within the person).

It is important to understand that Dissociation is an adaptive and necessary learnt coping mechanism that continues to occur in the absence of a current threat until taught to manage in another way. If anyone was placed in a similar traumatic situation, they would also experience similar dissociative symptoms. It is not an indication of weakness, and in fact the presence of Dissociation is a testament to what you have been through and that you have developed an effective coping mechanism to survive.

Tips to Manage Dissociation

  • Focus on your senses, to ground yourself in the present moment, e.g. identify 5 things you can see; 4 things you can hear; 3 things you can feel; 2 things you can smell; 1 thing you can taste.
  • You may need more intense sensory experiences to help you, e.g. holding ice, sitting on your hands, listening to loud music, etc. Any other activities that help you feel relaxed, may also be helpful such as listening to music/sounds, or going to the beach to watch the waves.

If you feel that your Dissociation is increasing in severity or frequency, and you have experienced childhood trauma or abuse, it is important to see a professional. Psychological treatment will help you recognise and understand what triggers your dissociation, provide a safe environment to emotionally understand and process past traumas if required, and learn alternative coping skills when feeling distressed or overwhelmed.

Written By Dr Bianca Heng – Clinical Psychologist – www.creatingchange.net.au