Imagine for a second that you’re going about daily life and then suddenly, out of nowhere, feeling as though your body is no longer your own. It’s as though you’re simultaneously completely disconnected from your body and from everything around you. You’re not really there, but equally the world surrounding you isn’t real. There’s still a part of you that knows this is ridiculous, that thinks “of course I’m here, of course this is all real” – but somehow that part is overshadowed and silenced by the overwhelming fear that either you, or the world (I can never decide which) doesn’t really exist.
That’s what dissociation is like for me. It’s one of the scariest aspects of my anxiety, although ironically is one of the body’s defence mechanisms (more on this below). I’ve spoken a fair bit about it in previous posts, so thought it was about time I dedicated a post to explaining what exactly what this means for me, and how I cope with it.
I normally only experience dissociation in flashes, and then it’s often when I’m on my own (for example on the tube, on the way to work) or when I’ve actually stopped to think about my anxiety, and so allowed the thought to take up room in my brain. I haven’t yet been able to pinpoint what causes these flashes, although I’m hoping this will become clearer with counselling.
I’ve only really experienced two episodes (I don’t like using that word, but can’t really think of a better one in this context) of dissociation that have lasted more than a few minutes. The first was in a play rehearsal earlier this year. We were rehearsing my death scene (which is interesting in itself – I’ll talk more about this in a bit) and for nearly the whole three hours I felt so removed from everything that was going on, and as though it was all totally artificial. It was very scary, but I didn’t know how to even begin articulating what I was feeling to the others (although I know they all would have been incredibly understanding regardless) so I just carried on. That’s one of the most unnerving things about it; despite having these terrifying thoughts whirling around in my brain, I can still function and carry on as normal, and so no one would ever guess.
The other time I’ve experienced an extended period of dissociation was a few months ago at my parents’ house. It was late at night and I was talking about my anxiety in general with my mum. I remember saying “I just feel so trapped in my own head”, and suddenly realised I felt like I was floating apart from everything around me.
When I’m experiencing a longer period of dissociation I also find it very difficult to process thoughts. My thought processes feel clouded and I find it much harder to establish “links” between thoughts. This is usually much easier to ignore when I’m immersed a conversation with someone, but not always.
I believe there were clear reasons why I experienced these longer periods of dissociating. The first time, I was having to pretend I was in fear of my life, and then actually had to pretend to die. A few months previously, I’d gone through a near death experience when I genuinely believed I was going to die (see my previous post) so it’s not surprising that my mind reacted violently to being sent back to that place again.
When I was at home, talking to my mum, I was expecting my period. Again, not surprising; my dissociation is always worse during PMS. All those hormones rushing around in my brain no doubt contribute to unwanted, scary thoughts.
When I feel a brief flash of dissociation – or, to describe it more accurately, a flicker of the terrifying feeling that I’m not real – I need to distract myself. If I’m on the tube, I’ll check my phone. This is unlike me, as I normally try very hard not to be glued to my phone – but when I feel that feeling hovering above me, I need to establish a connection with someone. This is a distraction and also to some degree validates my existence, thus banishing the disturbing thoughts that do their best to convince me I’m not really here.
Another thing that helps is gentle mindfulness. I focus hard on my senses – the feeling of my feet on the floor, what I can smell, what I can hear around me – and force myself to focus only on those sensory feelings. This is actually very effective and normally brings me back down to earth.
Dissociation is a symptom of PTSD, and so I suspect that’s where it stems from for me. Ironically, dissociation is actually one of the body’s greatest defence mechanisms. My counsellor described it very well; she told me to imagine my mind as a thermometer, with the temperature rising steadily upwards (the parallel here being rising anxiety). In order to avoid reaching the top, the mind naturally distances itself from the trauma and this distance manifests itself in a feeling of separation from the body and/or the world. If I think back to that rehearsal when I was trying to feel a genuine fear of death: my mind distanced itself from the traumatic feelings I have associated with a real near-death experience, thus making me feel wholly removed from everything going on around me. I didn’t experience any other disturbing feelings at all which means that my mind protected me from major anxiety and panic connected with a fear of death through removing itself completely from the situation. The lesser of two evils…?! The fear that comes with dissociation must, on some level, be easier for my mind to handle than the anxiety brought on by relieving traumatic thoughts and/or experiences.
To sum up: dissociation is often the mind’s way of protecting itself from disturbing thoughts and feelings, which I believe is usually the case for me. So, to some degree I’m grateful that it has such capacity for self-preservation, and such a sophisticated way of protecting itself. That’s not to say it isn’t incredibly frightening when it happens, and so I really have to try to distract myself or focus on my senses when I feel it coming on. It is manageable; I just have to stay calm and disciplined in order to manage those annoyingly persistent unwanted thoughts.
LOW OF THE WEEK: For the first few days of last week, I had a general overwhelming cloud of anxiety hovering over me. I couldn’t relax, couldn’t settle into activities I usually enjoy and I found it very difficult to distract myself. Deep down, I knew I’d been lazy with my coping mechanisms (mainly yoga and the Headspace app) so have resolved to be much more disciplined!
HIGH OF THE WEEK: Not sure if you could tell from my Insta but I had an all right time seeing Taylor Swift on Friday…jk that’s probably the understatement of the century. Such a fun night seeing one of my heroes (no shame) with one of my favourite people!