Dissociation, pronounced diss-SO-see-HAY-shun, is a natural and normal event that occurs when our brains allow for us to detach from the present and current moment, to go “elsewhere” in our minds. Dissociation is common enough, as a phenomenon, and you likely have had at least a few dissociative events or episodes, yourself. For example, have you ever driven a vehicle and found yourself, at some point “coming to” and realizing that you don’t have a memory of driving portions of the trip? This realization is usually somewhat alarming, in the moment, as you are likely to wonder if you stopped at red lights or stayed under the speed limit. But it is a harmless enough event, and one that is so common that it has been nicknamed “Highway Hypnosis.” Other examples of everyday dissociation might be when you find yourself performing tasks on “auto-pilot” while you daydream or are otherwise thinking about another matter. Dissociation also accounts for the feeling that you “are really there” with the characters in the book you are reading, or the movie you are watching. In these times, your awareness of what is actually going on around you, fades until all that is real is the story you are taking in.
Your brain is an amazing instrument and is built for way more than just elevating your pleasurable experiences or helping you to multi-task. Dissociation is one of it’s most amazing capabilities when it comes to emotional, physical, and psychological trauma. When a person finds themselves in an inescapable situation that seriously threatens their (or a loved ones’s) survival or emotional well-being, the human brain will forcefully shut-down and/or reroute a person’s attention and awareness away from the events that threaten to overwhelm and consume them. This redirection allows for many things to happen, including postponing full emotional awareness/response to the events currently occurring. This “administrative redirect” increases the likelihood that this person is able to mobilize and either fight back or escape at the first available opportunity. During this kind of dissociated state, a person likely is feeling little, if anything. It is described as a “numbness” and even a feeling of being detached, or distant from either their own body and self or the environment around them. It is your mind’s ability to do this, and to do it involuntarily, that helps people survive moments of unimaginable pain and suffering.
Dissociation is easily misunderstood by the persons who have experienced it. Sometimes, these people look back at what they endured and actually have anger or shame because they felt they should have “fought back,” or “tried harder,” etc. They may misinterpret their actions as “giving in” or “giving up,” which produces another (and super-heavy) layer of shame. What they don’t understand is that when they dissociated, it was not a choice. The part of your brain that controls this mechanism , is the part that controls autonomic and involuntary functions. Like breathing. And the beating of your heart. It is the primitive and “animalistic” part of the mind that “can’t be made to reason with.” During those moments, your mind understood only one thing–the danger is real and the risk is imminent! It responded by “taking the wheel,” and it did this to provide you some sense of psychological safety and to give you a fighting chance of later finding a way out. You could not have stopped this detaching. And when you appreciate what it might have saved (like, your very LIFE!), maybe you can see it for the blessing it was.
I hope this helps to soothe at least some of the tough feelings that come in the aftermath of surviving trauma. If you are struggling to get past what you’ve been through, please consider speaking with me over the phone. I’d be happy to give you more information or to discuss getting started with your healing journey.