Dissociation is a mental process where a person disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity. Dissociative disorders include dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, depersonalisation disorder and dissociative identity disorder.
A lot of people with cptsd/ptsd suffer from some form of dissociation. The definition above spells it out. It can be feeling like you’re not quite in your body all the way to your personality splitting into pieces and becoming seperate individuals. Most people experience this ‘out of body’ experience when they’re in an extremely stressful situation: anything from abuse, a car accident, active war time. However, a lot of people experience dissociation and it’s not a problem. An example is, you’re diving home in your car and you make it home but don’t remember actually driving there. This is a more benign form of dissociation. You’re not particularly stressed but your body goes on autopilot while your brain takes a little vacation. That’s all fine and normal. Dissociation is also one of the best defenses we as human have of protecting ourselves from really bad stuff. The situation is too stressful so we go outside of ourselves or disconnect from what’s going on around us and don’t feel what’s going on. Children are especially adept at using dissociation to help them cope with stress because of how plastic their brains are.
There main issue that comes up when you’ve used dissociation as a coping skill for a long time is that your brain goes there more automatically and as an adult and when you’re adulting, that can be problematic (especially at work, trying to parent etc). I used to dissociate a lot when I was a kid during some of my worst abuse. I would float above myself and look down to see what was happening but could reassure myself it wasn’t happen to me. I didn’t feel any emotion then and could cope. I would also picture myself swimming in a stain that was on the ceiling where I was brought. There were also times that I took myself into myself and put myself in box inside where I could be safe. I would ‘look up’ and see what was happening but couldn’t feel it. I would also swing on my swingset at home for hours to lull myself into a calmer state where I didn’t feel the emotions and pain.
I continue to dissociate as an adult. When I feel stressed, after a flashback, or when I feel panic (normally at a family function or large social gathering) I step outside of myself, it’s almost like I’m sitting right behind myself. Most of the time people don’t notice because again, the body is on autopilot but it can be uncomfortable, almost like a joint is out of socket. It interferes with daily life because you’re not present and people will be talking to you and you have no idea what they’ve said. My job is 100% listening to people so dissociating is an issue. There are also times when I feel like the floor is falling away from me or I’ll get sucked out of a window (this happens especially at work). This is troublesome and can be tough to cope with. This is what has helped me:
1. Rubber band or hair tie on my wrist that I snap
2. Holding sometime cold like an ice cube. in my office, I bought a small freezer and have ice packs in there. When I start to feel like I’m going to get sucked out of a window or I’m drifting, I take a cold pack and put it right on my diaphram. The body has no choice but to come back to itself
3. Grounding (practice when you feel well so it’s more natural when you’re having an episode)
5: Notice 5 things that you see
4: touch 4 things
3: find 3 things that you hear
2: find 2 things that you smell
1. one thing you can take
4. Go outside for a walk (I struggle with this but it is helpful)
I also struggle with depersonalization
Depersonalization disorder is marked by periods of feeling disconnected or detached from one’s body and thoughts (depersonalization). The disorder is sometimes described as feeling like you are observing yourself from outside your body or like being in a dream
In this case, I have often felt like when I look in the mirror, I’m not seeing myself. I also have times when I don’t feel like a person, I think I’m plastic, or feel different from everyone around me. I feel like everything around me isn’t real and I’m living in a dream. This happens less often then dissociation but when it does, it’s very distressing. I feel very paranoid and that there is something deeply wrong with me. I avoid mirrors whenever possible and rely on my husband and therapist for reality checks that I am indeed a person living a real life. Depersonalization is a very odd feeling. Talk therapy is the main treatment and my therapist has worked very hard with me to help with this.
I did find this book to be really helpful too:
Overcoming Depersonalization Disorder: A Mindfulness and Acceptance Guide to Conquering Feelings of Numbness and Unreality
I’m not as familiar with DID (dissociative identity disorder) but know that it’s the outcome of extreme distress over a prolonged period of time.