Dissociation: Life Through a Lens

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.”

With this in mind, if you are a survivor of any kind of abuse, or a therapist working with survivors, knowledge of dissociation and grounding skills is key to the healing journey.

The Lens

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.

The Switch

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.

Getting 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 By Sarah Jenkins, MC, LPC, CPsychol, therapist in Tempe, Arizona. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 13 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • chico

    chico

    January 25th, 2009 at 3:01 PM

    hello,

    I’ve been purposfully using dissociation to help myself, to get distance on the emotion and control it. Well I was wondering if this is not known to be harmful because I often feel like parts of myself are not turned on or something, memories are blocked, capacities are blocked, and I sometimes look back on things that I have done not entirely recognising myself (it’s never awful , things like acting a bit funny or just feeling weird confusion, I do feel puzzled about them). I know that there could be many causes to this but I’m just curious if the dissociation that I’m doing is something that I shouldn’t be doing (I’m stopping for now). Could you send me thos grounding tips by the way?

    Thanks for the article,

  • andrea

    andrea

    September 10th, 2013 at 4:31 AM

    Please can you send me those grounding tips I am completely numb inside

  • alive

    alive

    March 7th, 2009 at 7:02 AM

    Nice article, please send me the grounding tips!!!

  • Darcy

    Darcy

    May 21st, 2009 at 3:38 PM

    Thank you for the fascinating blog. This article was very interesting. Could you send me the list of grounding techniques?

    Thanks again!

  • David Heyburn

    David Heyburn

    October 24th, 2009 at 2:59 PM

    I think I may be experiencing a bit of dissociation, but I’ve not been abused in anyway in my past. My mother was paralyzed when I was 4 and only have memories of her in a wheelchair. but this sudden feeling like I’m somehow disconnected from things happened in the turmoil of trying to discerne feelings for a girlfriend and our eventual separation because of this uncertainty. All of this doubt came over me and kept me up all night, and as I tried to discuss my hesitations with her, she became very emotional and I feel like I went into panic mode, where I was just stressing over hurting her and the possible end of the relationship. I began to have feelings like I am completely aware of my surroundings but its like I dont care, or that I dont have a full presence in the moment. I’ve not been sleeping for almost 2 months with out medication. I’ve been working with a counselor and psychiatrist, and only recently did this notion of dissociation come up. I’ve always been very happy go lucky, motivated, sociable, and now I feel reclusive and ‘intimidated’ by people who are going about life per normal. its even weird for me to be writing this, because I know how odd it sounds. ANY HELP???!!!

  • REKHA

    REKHA

    November 8th, 2009 at 7:21 AM

    please send me ur free grounding tips cards.

  • Livska

    Livska

    November 8th, 2009 at 10:17 AM

    Please send me ur free grounding tip cards,

    thanks

    :)

  • Amy Dockerty

    Amy Dockerty

    May 18th, 2010 at 11:57 AM

    i would like the free grounding tips please.

  • kiran

    kiran

    May 22nd, 2010 at 12:05 AM

    Hey,

    Life through a lens can be new and blinking… I guess it would a new world for those suffering from myopia

    Thanks
    Kiran

  • msmadelinejo

    msmadelinejo

    October 26th, 2010 at 9:21 AM

    Ahh, I really need some help figuring out how to get myself back on the ground when this happens to me. It’s rare, but when it does my head feels fuzzy, everything looks too bright/too dark, and I just feel numb and like I can’t connect with the moment. It’s so frustrating. Could I have your grounding tips please??

  • UnmotheredChild

    UnmotheredChild

    February 19th, 2011 at 5:45 AM

    purposely dissociating? that’s not possible as dissociation is a defense, unconscious defense….right?

  • Jess

    Jess

    July 21st, 2011 at 7:33 AM

    More often than not I feel dissconnected and spaced out. Always in the future, or always in the past, but never in the present. feel as though i am watching my life through a TV and just cant seem to be “whole” with my body. Please send me your grounding tips.

    Thank you

  • Jehne

    Jehne

    July 30th, 2012 at 2:50 AM

    Thank you for your information. I am really struggling with Dissociation right now. Could you please send me your free grounding tips. Thanks again

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

 

Advanced Search

Search Our Blog