What Disassociation Actually Is & How To Deal With It

Unless you’ve yourself experienced it, it’s tricky to explain exactly what disassociation feels like. 

A friend of mine says he just starts to go numb and feels too stoned. One internet user describes disassociation as “a shell [forming] between me and the world….The thing about this shell is that it grows. It gets thicker and thicker. Inside, my thoughts get bigger, louder and make less sense.” For me, it’s kind of like that scene in Get Out where Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) gets put into the sunken place. Everything feels far away and unfamiliar. It’s like looking at a body fully underwater in the shallows of a busy public pool, experiencing the splashes and voices of the rest of the world, while I’m in the deep end watching and realizing that the body is mine but having little to no control over it. 

Disassociation is officially defined as “any of a wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experiences. The major characteristic of all dissociative phenomena involves a detachment from reality, rather than a loss of reality as in psychosis.” That is to say that dissociative episodes aren’t a symptom of “going crazy” but a form of temporary neurological detachment. 

According to Steinberg and Schnall, there are five “central” symptoms of disassociation:

  1. Amnesia: loss of memory for short or long periods of time. This can include not recalling all or part of an incident or time period.
  2. Depersonalization: feeling detached from yourself, parts of your body, and your emotions—like you are on autopilot or robotic.
  3. Derealization: feeling detached from your surroundings and people who were once familiar — like the world around you isn’t real.
  4. Identity confusion: feeling “uncertainty, puzzlement, or conflict about who you are.”
  5. Identity alteration: alterations in personality and behavior that others notice. Sometimes this manifests as feeling as if you don’t have control over other personalities or your body.

It’s not always as terrible as it may sound. Ninety-nine percent of the time, as a student, it occurs while I’m trying to study, getting ready for NV, or just lying in bed trying to enjoy the escapades of Dunder-Mifflin employees. But that other 1% is another story. Once, on the walk to RCW while I was having a particularly acute and unpleasant dissociative episode, I somehow walked in front of a truck going 50 km/h down Dalhousie without registering what I was actually doing. Nothing serious came of it – I didn’t get hit and no cars were wrecked, I was simply honked at and got some strange looks.

Think of a time that maybe you were going somewhere but when you arrived you couldn’t quite remember the drive because your mind was wandering, or maybe you grossly lost track of time while binge-watching a new Netflix original series. We all disassociate from time to time, to varying degrees of intensity. It’s an adaptive defense in response to stress or trauma, but can also be brought on as a response to certain anti-psychotic medications (e.g. SSRIs, SNRIs, or NDRIs) used in the treatment of emotional or psychological disorders. 

While certain medications have amplified the frequency at which I experience disassociation, my doctor speculates that it’s primarily a response to trauma. That’s why I can’t remember all the details of the night I was sexually assaulted and the weeks that followed all seem a blur. For traumatized individuals, disassociation is the brain in survival mode, a physiological reaction programmed to help cope with circumstances that may otherwise be unbearable. By muting and distorting bodily sensations and emotions, the body goes on a sort of autopilot mode in order to keep living. For people suffering from PTSD, the integration of memories can become difficult and the brain can continue to send of signals of danger, even when the traumatic situation is over, and this can continue for years.

With internet-induced connectivity and the rise of meme culture, people all across the globe are sharing their experiences as well as their personal tricks on how to hit the escape button during an episode. Here are mine:

  • Grounding: Take notice of your surroundings by naming five things you can see, hear, and feel. Count how many items of a particular colour you can see. Say the names of every business you’re passing on the street, or every book on your shelf. 
  • Be dirty. Literally: Weather permitting, kick off your shoes and dig your toes into the dirt. Maybe I’m just hippie-dippy, but feeling grounded and breathing deeply always brings me back to earth. If you’re inside or it’s the middle of the eternal Canadian winter, a fluffy carpet is good too. 
  • Get jiggy like Jigsaw and play a game: For every letter of the alphabet, name an animal/country/food/song that starts with it. For every car you see, rate on a scale of 1-10 how likely you’d be to buy it. For every person you see, try to guess their major. 
  • Just the T.I.P.: This is actually a dialectical behaviour therapy distress tolerance skill I read about on the internet, but it’s worked wonders for me before. Remember T.I.P. – temperature, intense exercise, progressive relaxation. For temperature, hold an ice cube in your hand for as long as you can or run a cold shower. Intense exercise is self-explanatory: do some jumping jacks or pretend to box that prof that gave you a 70 on your midterm when you CLEARLY deserved an 80, at least. Progressive relaxation means to slowly and methodically relax your body (my mum used to do this to help me fall asleep when I was little, so insomniacs pay attention) – starting at your toes and moving up to your calves, thighs, butt, etc., clench as hard as you can for ten seconds then release. Lying in bed is the optimal position for this.

I earlier mentioned how it’s not always so bad to disassociate, but everyone experiences it differently and it has the capability to be devastating. Dissociative individuals often turn to self-harm, drugs, or alcohol just so they can feel something. When trying to help someone who disassociates, please be kind, patient, and cautious. We don’t always know what to do or how to help ourselves. When we feel disconnected from our bodies and the world around us it is scarily easy to be reckless and put ourselves in harm’s way, but we are not crazy – we are just coping.