The Wisdom of Dissociation

I’m a somatic psychotherapist, so the following post may seem surprising.  I don’t believe that people should be “in their body” all the time.

This is not to say that bodily awareness is not important for healing.  Indeed, it is one of the most powerful vehicles for healing that I have ever witnessed.  At the same time, I do not believe it is possible, or even healthy, to constantly force ourselves into the body.

Therapists in the last 20 years have become much more educated about dissociation, a natural process that allows us to disconnect from sensation and awareness of the surrounding world. It can take many forms.  Someone experiencing dissociation may feel that they are in a fog.  They might feel that they are watching life like a movie, rather than actively participating.  In some cases, they can feel a loss of identity, as though they are not a real person.  “Multiple personalities” may develop, and a person may switch between personality states to deal with triggering situations.

Dissociation helps us survive an actual or perceived threat to life. It takes us out of the direct experience, and offers a release from pain.  I’ll offer an example below.  It’s a popular nature video often shown during beginning-level SE trainings.  If any SEPs are reading this, they will probably recognize it as something they have seen many times:

For a wild prey animal, dissociation is nothing short of a blessing.  If the predator perceives an animal as dead, they may leave it alone, allowing the animal to escape.  Even if the animal does not escape, at least their death is painless.  For humans, dissociation has the same effect.

People who have experienced trauma often pathologize the freeze response.  “I should have done something, but I just froze”.  They discount the wisdom of their nervous system, which allowed them to survive the experience and may have also protected them from disruptive trauma memories that would have seemed overwhelming later on.

I also want to name that dissociation isn’t just a trauma thing.  People without PTSD use dissociation all the time.  Have you ever been lost in a book, so absorbed in the story that you disconnect from the external world?  Have you ever been in a deep state of meditative trance which allowed you to connect with spiritual allies?  Throughout history, daydreams and fantasies have inspired us.  For trauma survivors, a character from myth, religion or even science fiction may become a healing archetype that serves as a resource for recovery.  In many ways, one might say that dissociative states are sacred, in that they help us access the healing wisdom of our own psyche.

Now, I am not saying that we should walk around in fantasy land all the time.  If somebody loses their ability to come out of dissociation, then this needs to be addressed.  What I am essentially saying is this:  The goal of therapy is not to eradicate or pathologize specific states of consciousness.  The goal is to support resiliency, so that somebody can have access to the state that is appropriate in the moment.

If you notice yourself dissociating today, be curious about it.  Rather than berating yourself for the dissociation, ask yourself this:  Was it adaptive for the given situation?  If not, you may want to explore ways to bring yourself back to the present moment.  Here are some things to try:

  • Look around the room and name five yellow things (or green, or purple.  Pick a favorite color).  This will instantly focus your attention on the external environment and help you become present.
  • Take a walk.  Be mindful of your feet on the ground.  Notice where your attention is drawn in the natural world.  If you feel drawn to a specific object, like a rock or a pine cone, pick it up and notice the texture in your hands.
  • Carry favorite sensory objects in your pocket or purse.  These might be smooth rocks, stress balls or soft fabric.  Some eclectic shoppes carry rocks printed with positive messages.  If you find one you like, consider getting it for yourself.
  • Eat small amounts of a favorite food or beverage.  One cup of tea or a square of dark chocolate can awaken the senses instantly.  Notice how your body reacts to that small act of self-care.  You may notice some feeling of relaxation or relief.
  • Make sure you are comfortable.  You are less likely to be in your body if your clothes don’t fit, or you are experiencing dehydration.  Try having a glass of water or putting on sweat pants.  You will be surprised how quickly you feel better.

Now, if you decide that your dissociation is adaptive, then don’t be afraid to let yourself enjoy it.  Notice how you feel as you emerge from that restful state, and thank yourself.