If you are already working on healing from a history of trauma, dissociation is likely a familiar concept. You are likely aware it is a system of coping that, in times of distress, offers protection from the full realization of trauma and its associated emotions, sensations, images, thoughts, and patterns of thinking.
The lack of realization and integration of these components creates the symptoms that bring people to therapy. The greater the extent and intensity of the traumas, the greater the complexity of the typical dissociative process and, of course, the treatment approach.
The “window of tolerance,” a concept introduced by Daniel J. Siegel, describes the equilibrium our systems need in order to heal from trauma. When we have unhealed traumas, our systems may not be fully present. They might not fully know or feel that the danger has passed and can become fixed in states of hypoarousal and hyperarousal or fluctuate between the two states.
Hypo- or hyperarousal can result from the dissociative symptoms linked to the trauma, which may be positive (adding to the experience) or negative (taking away from the experience). Positive dissociative symptoms might include intrusive images, emotions, sensations, and thoughts. Negative dissociative symptoms may include amnesia, derealization, and depersonalization.
When we are stuck in these upper and lower zones of hyper- or hypoarousal, the full integration and healing of trauma cannot occur. But in the middle, within the window of tolerance, healing and integration can occur.
The shift outside the window of tolerance into hypo- or hyperarousal is the dissociative process, and it may be subtle or extreme. In those moments we experience what I call the “quantum leap effect,” where aspects of our former self, still stuck in the original trauma, do not have access to what the present self knows. That keeps us stuck in the reliving of the traumatic material, even though a part of us—an inaccessible part, so long as we are dissociating—knows it is in the past.
Anchoring Yourself in the Present
After noticing a dissociative shift into hypo- or hyperarousal, it may be helpful to utilize a skill that anchors you mindfully to the present. The anchor is not just about noticing you are “in the now.” It is imperative you notice and acknowledge the present is different from whatever you think you are stuck in. “I know I may be seeing old stuff,” you might tell yourself, “but that old stuff can’t be happening because I am in this room now, and these are the ways it looks different.”
The shift outside the window of tolerance into hypo- or hyperarousal is the dissociative process, and it may be subtle or extreme.
A more specific example might look like this: “The wall is brown, there is carpet, and I am 22 years old. I can’t be in that old circumstance. I am in the same room as this brown carpet. It must be over, because I am in a different room and I am older. I wasn’t wearing these shoes. In fact, I couldn’t fit in these shoes if I was in that time.”
If you are trying to heal from trauma, think of this anchoring skill as a way to get aspects of your former self more current and stay within your window of tolerance. To really take root, it must be practiced over and over. But it is an essential coping skill for any trauma survivor, even before processing any traumatic material in therapy.
Siegel, D. (1999). The Developing Mind. New York: Guilford.
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