The Path to Safety: Treating Dissociation with Movement

Young Muscular Man StretchingPsychotherapists and clients who are working with issues of dissociation talk about being grounded a lot. What we usually mean by grounded is the experience of feeling present and aware in our bodies and being able to interact with the world around us with a clarity of our senses. There are even formulas that seem to have developed for how to be present—“feel your feet on the floor, your butt in your chair, and breathe.” Sometimes this is enough, but often it’s not.

Moving your body is a much faster and more reliable method for becoming grounded. Although movement in general is often helpful for restoring awareness to the body and breaking free of dissociation, centered and well-organized movement is even more useful.

Try the following experiments to see if you can notice the benefits of grounding movement:

  1.  Jump up and down and side to side while waving your arms wildly. What was that like for you? What did you notice physically and emotionally, both during and after the exercise? How satisfying was that?
  2. Now try standing with your feet shoulder width apart and begin rotating in your hip joints. Twist side to side, letting your arms follow the movement of your torso. (Some people find it helpful to imagine that they are a washing machine). What was this like? What were your physical and emotional sensations? Did you find this movement satisfying?

People typically report that the second exercise helps them bring their surroundings into focus and reduces anxiety and fearfulness. They feel more grounded and less dissociated.

This works because it offers an organized and nonthreatening way to quite literally expand the body and bodily awareness.

Dissociation is a flight response to a perceived threat. Checking out, via either partial or total amnesia, or switching into another part of the self, makes awareness of the threat disappear. This is a very handy skill for small children who are not able to adequately protect themselves. This is less useful for adults who have developed habits of dissociating—whether the threat is present in the moment or remembered.

The problem with dissociation is that adults, who are capable of protecting themselves, lose access to that protective ability when they split. As a colleague of mine likes to say, if there’s a tiger in the room and you pretend it’s not there, that doesn’t actually make the tiger disappear. Dissociation doesn’t make you more safe, and it actually makes you less safe.

But, clients often tell me, if I don’t dissociate and I choose instead to be present, then I’ll be stuck in my fears—how does being petrified make me any safer? Good point, I reply. They’re right, after all. Being frozen with fear is not any more effective than dissociating is for dealing with that oncoming tiger. What is effective for safety is being present and grounded.

Here’s another experiment you can try which demonstrates this point:

  1.  Imagine that you’re afraid. It might help to recall a time when something scared you—perhaps a loud noise, a spider, or something else that frightened you a little bit. Notice what happens in your body (pay attention to your breathing, posture, and points of tension).
  2. Now imagine that you’re safe and satisfied. Pull up a memory of an experience of being warm and secure and loved. What’s going on in your body this time?

In general, people report that when they’re afraid, their bodies constrict and collapse, their stomachs tighten, breathing becomes shallow, jaws clench, and they notice tension in their arms, chest, legs, and/or back. When doing the second exercise, they typically feel their bodies open up and relax.

The feeling of safety is a lot like the feeling created by the washing machine exercise at the beginning of this article. This suggests that being present in our bodies is the path to safety. Instead of having to only choose between dissociation and petrifaction, people working with dissociation can make use of movement to come into a state of groundedness and safety.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ruby Linhan, LISW, Dissociation Topic Expert Contributor

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • JimH

    April 6th, 2012 at 11:38 AM

    Many people will dissociate when they are uncomfortable with a situation or memory,a nd this is protection for them. What positive purpose could it be for them to face the moment, to remain in the here and now if it is only going to increase the anxiety that they are already feeling?

  • mountainMan

    April 6th, 2012 at 1:41 PM

    great treatment option for those who are especially motivated and encouraged by kinesthetic and energetic learning patterns

  • jake

    April 7th, 2012 at 2:15 AM

    so basically we are experiencing safe and healthy postures or body movements again and again-is this what is suggested?sounds good but I don’t quite understand how being aware of your body actually helps.

  • Carla Henson

    April 7th, 2012 at 9:07 AM

    For me practicing mindfulness has helped me to be present more. What that means for me is that I had a real tendency to tune out when something threatened me, or I perceived that kind of threat in a very real way. And basically, that was anything that I did not want to deal with at the moment- it could have been anything from finances to family! But practicing being more grounded and in the here and now has improved a lot of that for me. I no longer feel the need to run away or turn away when the going gets tough. I am better able to face my fears and confront them than I have ever been before.

  • cora

    April 9th, 2012 at 4:28 AM

    Sounds kind of risky to ask certain people to face those fears without the proper guidance. Yes they need to face those fears, but never alone.

  • Hollie

    December 9th, 2013 at 9:04 PM

    Super encouraging article. SO nice to see someone in the mental health field that actually has some real understanding & knowledge of disassociation and how it works (or doesn’t:(). Thrilled to have found this site. Very helpful for anyone who truly desires to look at what’s really going on in themselves & do the hard work to heal. Thank you!

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