Let’s Talk About Dissociation

Dissociation is a defense mechanism used by the mind to protect oneself from a perceived threat. Witnessing or experiencing a traumatic incident or enduring chronic abuse may result in the development of this mental process. Dissociation is most often developed during one’s childhood, as children are more susceptible to imaginative thinking and escapism during times of stress. Once this method of detachment has been learned it can be difficult to rid oneself of it, thus leading to interference in one’s daily life even after they have escaped the abuse. 

Dissociation can be difficult to handle when you’re in a public setting such as work or school, or when you’re around friends and family who are unable to recognize the signs. It’s common to be stuck in an uncomfortable situation dissociating and not knowing what to do. It’s common to dissociate without knowing you’re dissociating. It’s common to feel overwhelmed or controlled by your dissociation.

This post is going to focus on the impact of dissociation in each area of one’s life and how to deal with it. Recognizing when you are dissociating and how you dissociate is a great first step to becoming more self-aware and gaining more control over your trauma.

Signs at school:

  • Repetitive memory lapses, including forgetting assignments or forgetting taught material. Based on the severity, you may only remember the basics of a subject, or you may have forgotten the basics (such as simple division or multiplication in math)
  • Feeling like other students are robots, or are not real, or are duplicates. This feeling may be more intense when walking in hallways between classes, or during recess or lunch
  • Feeling as though your desk or reading materials are twenty feet away despite them being inches from you
  • Staring at the clock yet being unable to read it
  • Poor grades caused by memory lapses, or poor grades caused by apathy resulting from a sense of derealization
  • Static in your vision when reading or feeling like your peripheral vision is closing in on you or darkening 
  • Teachers or classmates repeating questions to you multiple times because you did not hear them, not being receptive to interaction
  • Writing letters backwards without knowing, presenting disarrayed and odd essays
  • Staring at your assignment unblinkingly for minutes, acting as if you are frozen or in a catatonic haze

What can you do?

  • Use your five senses to connect with reality. Without being distracting to other students, fiddle with your eraser or pencil, or flip repetitively through the pages in your book. Do anything you can to feel physically present. If your teacher would allow you to, using a stress ball to squeeze may help tremendously 
  • Keep your eyes moving. By remaining active, you’ll reduce the amount of “spacing out” you experience. Repetitively blink your eyes and look around the room. Avoid staring at one spot for a prolonged period of time.
  • Use humor. Look at your teacher and imagine them wearing something funny or saying something ridiculous. Think of a joke you know that always makes you smile
  • Look for opportunities to become more engaged with your surroundings. If you’re having trouble reading, volunteer to read out loud if possible, as this may help you process the information better. If the teacher asks if anyone has a question, ask one to engage in conversation and distract yourself. This is a good way of interacting with someone without getting in trouble 
  • If you have to, dismiss yourself to the bathroom and splash some cold water in your face. This may help you come to your senses
  • If you know of any specific triggers at school, whether it be a person or a certain room, try to avoid being around them, or in that room. If there is no way of avoiding your triggers, mentally prepare yourself before facing the triggers and have a plan set up ahead of time for if you do begin dissociating

Signs at work:

  • A sudden decrease in performance for seemingly no reason
  • Repetitively messing up orders or misconstruing information given to you by a customer or client
  • Feeling as though you are staring right through a customer or client
  • Severe memory lapses, such as forgetting tasks you’ve practiced for months, forgetting the name of the business you work for, or forgetting your name when introducing yourself to a customer or client
  • Coworkers commenting on your behavior, possibly saying you’re acting cold, quiet, rude, or distant
  • Reacting intensely to any mistakes you make; alternatively, acting completely indifferent towards any mistakes you make
  • Getting lost in thought when coworkers are talking to you
  • Feeling compelled to act in a certain way, monitoring your every action, feeling as though you are pretending to be you

What can you do?

  • If possible, walk as much as you can to remain active. This will be much easier to achieve for people who do not have desk jobs. If you have a desk job, interact with items on your desk. If you’re allowed to, bring an item to work that’s interactive that you can adorn your desk with
  • If you have a desk job, tape a piece of paper to your desk or cabinets to remind you of what to do when you feel this way, or tape a joke or something lighthearted such as a kitten image
  • If you’re given breaks, take advantage of them. Eat something, splash cold water on your face, listen to music, or if you’re allowed to, drive to a nearby gas station or store to get out of the building and become more attuned to your surroundings. Being in an open area with fresh air may help
  • Create games to keep yourself focused on something other than your dissociation or trauma. Examples would be seeing how many customers you can make smile, or seeing how many customers you can get to order a specific item, or seeing if you can convince a coworker to buy you a coffee
  • Talk to your boss if needed. The way you approach the conversation should be based on their personality and level of knowledge regarding trauma or mental disorders. You may need to compile resources for them to read or retrieve some type of note from your therapist for them to read. Effective communication is a vital key to maintaining any relationship, whether it’s romantic, platonic, or purely business. 

Signs at home:

  • Identity confusion, such as acting in a fashion you or your family and friends would consider offensive
  • Out of body experiences, feeling as though you are watching yourself from above
  • Feeling as though you are in a movie
  • Friends or family members saying you have a “glazed” look, or that your eyes appear empty
  • Experiencing an inability to feel pain, developing a numbness to it
  • Objects around you appearing diminished in size or looking artificial
  •  Severe memory lapses, such as forgetting the name of your street, forgetting who your close friends are, or forgetting specific periods of your life
  • Not recognizing yourself in the mirror
  • Tunnel vision or blurry vision
  • A lack of belonging when out with family or friends
  • Being unable to account for things you’ve done, such as not remembering completing a purchase, not remembering writing a letter you’ve found, or finding unexplained clothes in your closet
  • Time loss, or feeling as though you’ve forgotten everything during a period of time, or feeling like you’ve blacked out

What can you do?

  • Count different colored things in the room. Three red things, five greens things, and so forth. Doing this is a good way to distract yourself and stay aware of your surroundings
  • Take a cool bath or shower
  • Hold ice cubes in your hand or put your hand in a bowl of ice cubes. This will wake you up and is a good way to avoid self-harming if you want to feel something
  • Engage in a productive hobby you enjoy, such as drawing, writing, or reading
  • Start cleaning
  • Instead of texting, try calling a friend. Hearing someone’s voice may help ground you
  • If you have a pet, interact with them. Let them crawl on you or sit on you. Play with them. Talk to them
  • Take a long whiff of a strong yet pleasant scent, such as a candle, flowers, or air freshener

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