She knew she would not be able to stop the car in time. The previous night’s snow was now ice on the road. As though watching a movie she had made up, the woman could feel herself floating outside of the car as it fell down into the gorge 100 feet below. From above, she saw the car move as if in slow motion, gliding through the air until if came to rest upright at the edge of the creek. In the next scene, she watched herself force open the door and look around. Her attention was drawn to the intricate spider web design of the broken windshield. Everything else she looked at seemed strange in an odd way. Later, the therapist explained that she had dissociated.

WHAT IS THE MOST COMMON RESPONSE TO SERIOUS THREAT?

When we are faced with life threatening situations, the most common trauma response is for us to dissociate. When we are overwhelmed with a sense of danger and we don’t have a way to protect ourselves, our nervous systems will automatically go into dissociative mode. As a result, we lose our ability to accurately perceive what is happening in our environment. Just like the woman in the car, we “go some place else”.

WHEN DOES DISSOCIATION HAPPEN?

Nearly all of us have known what I call the “garden variety” of dissociation. We drive home from work listening to the radio and once we get home, we would not be able to say much about what we saw or that we may have heard the geese honking above us. There was no threat but we dissociated anyway.

As the story above illustrates, dissociation also can happen in response to something, which threatens our survival.

Animals in the wild often do it. Before the lion’s jaws even touches the lamb, which has not chance of out running the lion, the weaker animal will go limp and dissociate so it does not feel the tearing of its skin.

BENEFITS OF DISSOCIATION

In the face of serious harm, our bodies will take care of us by causing us to dissociate.

1. The memory of an event and the feelings become disconnected. While dissociated, the woman did not have to feel the terror of falling.

2. We feel as though we have become detached from our body. As the car felt off the cliff, the woman’s body “remained behind” and she didn’t have to feel herself being jerked and bruised under the seat belt.

3. Emotions become numbed. When she told the story of the accident to the police, she appeared calm. This helped her to keep the panic at bay.

4. Things can appear unreal. By seeing the car and location as unfamiliar, the woman’s nervous system kept things manageable for the time being.

5. Time can move real s-l-o-w-l-y. Again, this distortion in perception helped the woman cope when the accident happened too fast for it all to register.

6. Our senses such as sight and hearing can sharpen. After the fall, the woman’s attention fixed on the pattern of the broken glass.

WHEN DISSOCIATION BECOMES A PROBLEM

Dissociation becomes a problem when we are dissociating after the threat has passed and we live our lives in a dissociated state. We feel numb emotionally and physically and miss out on experiencing the good things in life. We lose our sense of aliveness and connection to others and our environment. When we are not able to give our attention to what is happening right now, intimacy dies. In addition, we also can miss the signals from our bodies that tell us we are ill or not safe. Consequently, we make decisions that may put us in harms way or that we later regret. Our ability to feel a wide range of emotions including joy, love and passion becomes limited. Others struggle to connect to us and may even turn away from our company because we always seem to be somewhere else.

WHAT WORKS?
When the woman, who I described above, came to therapy, she was very anxious and able to recall only snippets of the accident. She felt as though she had lost several days of her life following the accident.

Through a specific trauma therapy called, Somatic Experiencing, the woman was surprised when the therapist began the session by asking her to describe how she was rescued. In the past, she always told her story from beginning to end. This new way helped her to really “get” that she had survived and that help had come; her body relaxed all over. Until then a part of her was always dreading that death could come any moment. The actual telling of the accident was different for her as well. She told her story in very small chunks. This, she came to appreciate, helped each of the dissociated experience to become “real” to her. . By working slowly, she was able to respond to the question, “What do you notice now?” by saying that she could feel the leather car seat under her legs as she sat inside the car at the bottom of the ravine. Continuing with answers to other questions such as “Where do you feel that movement (of self protection) starting to happen in your body? and “What else do you see or hear as you sit in the car” helped the woman to fill in the missing blanks of what happened after the car went off the road. Toward the end of therapy, she was particularly grateful that when it came time to touch into the terror of all that happened, she could feel the terror without feeling overwhelmed.

By paying particular attention to the woman’s imagery, body sensations, impulses to move, and her emotions, the therapist was able to help the client re-experience the event in such a way that the client no longer needed to be dissociated and which did not retruamatize the client.

By the end of several sessions, the woman felt “together” again. The days following the accident came alive for her and her anxiety level had significantly subsided.

But wait….

I would feel embarrassed letting someone else know I had dissociated. I felt weird after the injury and thought I had gone crazy.

It’s not uncommon to feel like you have gone crazy. The sensations of seeing and hearing things as though you were not in your body can be very disorienting. The topic of dissociation is not something many of discuss over the dinner table.

When we face a serious threat, however, it is VERY NORMAL and a very kind thing that our nervous system knows how to do. There usually is not anything we can do to stop it. Our nervous system does this to help us cope. It keeps us from freaking out, from feeling overwhelmed to the point of collapse, and it keeps us from feeling the terror and physical pain when we fear for our life. A therapist, who understands trauma, can help you see the benefits of short-term dissociation.

Why would I want to stop dissociating? It helps me to escape when there is conflict happening with my spouse.

Being able to dissociate can seem, for a while, like an effective coping mechanism. In addition to not feeling physical pain, it can also help us to avoid feeling emotional discomfort. However, if dissociation has become a way of life, when there is no serious threat actually happening, we can go around always feeling dead inside. Spouses may wonder if we are “really there” when they tell us something.

SUMMARY
· Dissociation is a normal response to a serious threat.
· You may feel separated from your body or emotions.
· Sense of time becomes distorted or people and places seem unfamiliar.
· Dissociation usually happens beyond your control and you do it to protect yourself from pain and extreme fear.
· To help others who are dissociated, keep them from further harm and do not expect them to think very clearly.

If you would like to learn more about the effects of trauma, subscribe below to my newsletter Healing Trauma. In future articles, I will talk about good self care steps to take if you have experienced trauma and how to support others you know, who have gone through some trauma event and

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Author's Bio: 

Maggie is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 15 years of experience working with those who have experienced a trauma event. As a former massage therapist, she understands that healing from trauma requires treatment that addresses how the body, in addition to the mind and emotions, is affected by trauma. Post graduate study training in Dr Peter Levine's (author of Awakening the Tiger) Somatic Experiencing and Hakomi, a body centered psychotherapy with emphasis on healing developmental wounds, and the identification and treatment of dissociative identity disorder through the International Association of the Study of Trauma and Dissociation.