Not feeling “grounded” often goes hand-in-hand with stress, and may be a signal for a need to connect with yourself and achieve balance. In its extreme, not being grounded is most familiar for those with histories of trauma which can lead to “dissociation.”
Even if your logical mind believes you have moved past something that was challenging, stressful, or unsafe, your emotional mind may not have. As a result, whether you are conscious of it or not, any feeling or physical sensation that feels familiar can “trigger” your history and your dissociation. All of a sudden the thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and experiences of your history become the lens through which you see the world. Ironically, what many clients learn is that being in the “here and now” often means processing the past, so it releases its hold on them, today.
People may feel “dissociated” at times of internal or external stress. Whether it be internal states, such as feelings, thoughts, and body sensations, or an external event that triggers them, the stress can become too much to tolerate. Everyone’s threshold is different. Through the years, whatever coping skills you have used, whether healthy, or not, will get triggered to manifest at the same time as the stress.
For some, the triggering stressor can become too much to handle. Then “dissociation,” an internal psychological mechanism, originally designed to help you cope, kicks in. As if by an internal switch being turned on, dissociation manifests to protect you from what you are feeling, thinking, or experiencing as traumatic and helps you to “leave” the body during times of stress. Rather than sitting with the disturbance, the automatic switch helps you to achieve emotional and physical distance from triggers. Clients often describe this in a variety of ways, i.e. “it’s not happening to me,” “I’m not there,” “I don’t feel my age,” “I feel numb,” “I’m away from it,” “I feel like a part of me is still there.” I call it “dissociation language.”
The type of dissociation “switch” unique to you is likely to have been created in the past, during times of significant stress. Traumatic events such as sexual abuse, assault, or emotional abuse, are a few examples that can manifest into dissociation. Certainly, dissociation can become a coping skill to help you feel safer and away from the feelings, thoughts, and body-sensations.
Dissociation is on a continuum from less to extreme. We all can dissociate to a certain extent. Nevertheless, for some, it can be extremely unsettling and confusing. It can create a sense of not knowing how to feel, where they are, what is real, and what to trust. It can increase in duration and intensity, causing a consistent feeling of not being fully “present” or “grounded.” In and of itself, this coping skill can then become a struggle, as if a computer program gone awry. The dissociation becomes a familiar switch that turns on, often with no sense of how and why it did. It just happens.
Equally disturbing can be the experience of wanting to create a greater amount of distance from painful feelings, thoughts, and body sensations. The need to dissociate can also contribute to a variety of addictive behaviors that will mimic the dissociation switch being turned on. Then, as if a cycle is created, the increased dissociation may become too intense. To feel grounded again, many use addictive behaviors to turn the dissociation switch back off again. As a result, they “teeter totter” between these states, as opposed to feeling a consistent sense of being grounded.
To feel grounded is to experience the opposite of dissociation. One feels “centered,” “together,” “whole,” or “balanced.” It involves a sense of being connected to the earth, your body, emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Rather than feeling distant from them, you are able to “come back to yourself.” Rather than feeling afraid of your feelings, thoughts, or experiences, you can experience them fully, and with a sense of being present.
Clients who have an increased sense of being grounded describe it as if they are able to “handle” what would usually trigger them, and they don’t feel the immediate need to have distance. They feel fully present, in the moment, and calmer instead of overwhelmed with thoughts, feelings, or body sensations.
To achieve a greater sense of being grounded means having to release the energy of the experiences that created the dissociation switch in the first place. It was created when there was sense of being unsafe, in danger, highly, stressed, or unable to cope. Therefore, the nervous system has to safely discharge the original feelings, sensations, thoughts, and experiences. Therapy, and processing those disturbing events, is key to changing the dissociation switch, as is learning tips to help you feel grounded.
Addressing any amount of dissociation is the key to helping you getting back to yourself again to continue on your healing journey. Those seeking to become “whole again” or “grounded” must learn what led to them feeling incomplete or separate in the first place. More often than not, it’s the trauma that must be reprocessed.
If you are in therapy and have experienced dissociation, please consider sharing it with your therapist. If you resonate with this article, perhaps bring a copy of it to your session to help you discuss your experiences.
© Copyright 2007 by Sarah Jenkins. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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