Head in the Clouds? Some Tips for Managing Dissociation

Dissociation.

It’s something common to the human experience, but not commonly talked about. On your drive home, during a boring math lecture, maybe even while reading this post! Have you ever arrived home and realized you can’t remember driving the last ten minutes? Maybe you’re in math class staring directly at the board, and suddenly realize you haven’t listened to a single word your teacher said. Perhaps you zone out while reading this paragraph and have to start over. Where did you go during that time warp? Quite possibly, you just dissociated. These are all common experiences of dissociation we all encounter from time to time (particularly during times of boredom).

Sometimes, dissociation can occur more severely or for longer periods of time, to the degree that it impacts your ability to function fully or remain present in times that matter most. Perhaps you feel emotionally disrupted while arguing with your spouse, and begin to feel yourself “float away,” suddenly feeling that you are outside yourself. While having a conversation with a friend, as she begins talking about a traumatic experience, you suddenly feel detached from the conversation and the world around you. In times of stress, you feel so overwhelmed by anxiety that you begin to feel numb and as if you are not real. Maybe looking back over a traumatic time in life, you notice periods of time you can’t recall or that are “blocked out.” These are all signs of more severe dissociation. When this type of dissociation happens in moments we want to be present, it can be rather confusing and frustrating.

So why does this happen?

Dissociation to this degree often occurs when we find ourselves faced with danger or pain, but without the ability to fight the danger or flee from it. Recently while staying in the Appalachian Mountains, I let my dog out the front door to find a mama black bear and her three cubs in the front yard! Boone, my fearless nine-month-old puppy, began to sprint after the bears! I called his name trying to get him to come back, terrified he might be attacked. Looking back, some of this memory is a bit fuzzy. What happened? While encountering the bear and wanting to protect my dog, I knew I had no chance of fighting off four bears, and no ability to outrun even a bear cub (or my dog, for that matter). Instead, I stood motionless, with my feet glued to the front porch, absolutely frozen.

When we encounter danger or trauma, our brain flips into action mode: can I defend myself against this danger (the fight response)? Am I able to escape this danger (the flight response)?

When fight or flight are not options, our bodies shut down as a result (the freeze response). In this “freeze” state, the ability to feel pain in the body is numbed, the heart rate slows, the memory becomes more fuzzy, and the mind becomes disconnected from the present moment. This is the body’s way of protecting us when there is no other safe option. We “leave” the situation or our bodies in order to not be exposed to the intense pain or terror before us.

Often, if dissociation of this sort occurs more regularly, something about the conversation, experience, or person you encounter reminds your brain of a time it was in danger but had no other option besides shutting down. The danger may have looked like a bear, or could have been in the form of an abusive parent, significant fighting between your caregivers growing up, or other forms of trauma or “adverse experiences.” (Go to https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/ to see a list of Adverse Childhood Experiences and find your ACE Score). While this freeze may have protected you from the full blow of harm once upon a time, it is now a burden that keeps you from being present to a less dangerous reality.

So if you find yourself dissociating regularly, what are some ways to cope and to keep your head from floating into the clouds? Grounding. Grounding exercises help bring your attention back to the present moment and back into your body. I will walk you through a few below to get started.

Disclaimer: what works for one person may not work for another. There is no right or wrong way of staying grounded. Here are a few to try below, but remember this is the tip of the iceberg. There are many more grounding techniques out there, and it may take trial and error to find ones that work for you.

  1. Using Your Five Senses. What better way to bring you back to your senses than by using your senses! Begin by noticing 5 things you can see around you. Take in each slowly, noticing as much detail as you can. Next, switch to your sense of touch. Allow yourself to feel 4 separate things: perhaps the ground beneath your feet, the chair under your body, or the feel of your cotton t-shirt. You may want to linger here, particularly if you are noticing numbness in your body. Turn your attention to your sense of hearing. Listen for 3 separate sounds around you, again taking in the details of each sound. After this, notice 2 smells around you. Finally, focus on one thing you taste.
  2. Body Movement. If you tend to numb out while dissociating, moving your body can be an excellent way to return to the present. Begin by squeezing your fingers and toes as tight as you can, then shaking and releasing. Get the blood flowing in your legs by going for a walk, running in place, or doing some jumping jacks. Turn on your favorite tunes and dance around the room like no one is watching. Yoga can also be an excellent way to reconnect with the present, as it combines both mind and body.
  3. The Shock Factor. Not as scary as it sounds, the shock factor is a way to stimulate your awareness when these other methods don’t work. Grab some ice cubes and place them where you feel numb – along your arms, over your eyelids, the back of your neck. Take an ice cold shower to reawaken your attention to your sense of touch. Eat some spicy food or something packed with flavor.

Unfortunately for those with a past history of trauma, dissociation can continue to take place when the original trauma is no longer present. What was once a helpful survival tactic has left the dissociating person with their head in the clouds in situations where they wish to be fully aware. While these grounding exercises can be a starting place to manage dissociation, those with a history of trauma may need to process the deeper roots of their pain. It may be helpful to walk through similar grounding exercises with another person and learn more tools for managing dissociation. Counseling can be an excellent place to explore these issues and find greater support on your journey to healing.

(**Side note: my pup Boone was okay and was able to successfully chase off the bears! Apparently his fight response seems to be in working order, so we kept him constantly on a leash after that.)

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