Dissociation: How the mind protects against traumatic stress
“Sometimes it’s like I’m living in a goldfish bowl. It’s hard to describe. It’s like I’m set apart from myself and the world. There’s a feeling of unreality and disconnection.”
This is one person’s description of dissociation. Dissociation is a natural phenomenon that everyone experiences to some degree. For example, when you’re travelling by car and find that you can’t remember parts of the journey. However, dissociation can also occur when we become overwhelmed. This may happen in response to trauma or from an accumulation of prolonged stress. When this happens people may find that they:
- perceive time differently
- feel “spaced out”
- feel a sense of unreality
- feel emotionally or physically numb
- feel disconnected from their body in some way
- feel like they’re on the outside looking in
- behave in irrational ways
- have episodes of amnesia or partial amnesia
- experience flashbacks.
Sometimes people aren’t consciously aware that they’re overwhelmed. This may be because the primitive part of our brains, designed to protect us, hides this information from us. It stops us feeling, distances us from our body and reduces our perception.
How does dissociation happen?
It’s thought that dissociation may be associated with our brain’s primitive fight and flight responses. It may be the mind’s way of attempting to escape when flight's not an option, or of dampening down emotions when things just get too much.
Dissociation can range from mild to severe. Approximately 73% of people will experience some form of dissociation following a trauma. Usually these symptoms will ease on their own within a few weeks. People suffering with anxiety, bereavement, depression or chronic stress often report some experience of dissociation.
In severe cases dissociation can develop into a dissociative disorder requiring professional mental health support.
If you are concerned that you may be experiencing dissociation, your doctor will be able to make a proper assessment of your symptoms.
Solution focused hypnotherapy for stress and trauma
Solution focused hypnotherapy can be very effective in helping people to resolve emotional trauma and manage stress. It’s a safe, positive process that combines psychotherapy with the power of hypnosis. It focuses on getting you to where you want to be and aims to help you:
- calm your mind and body's reactions to stress
- create a more positive perspective so that you'll be more resilient to stressful situations in the future
- feel more confident and in control so that you can get on with living a happier and healthier life.
Self-help for stress and trauma
There are also lots of things you can do to help yourself, for example:
- take gentle exercise, e.g. yoga
- set aside time each day for relaxation
- practice calming breathing techniques
- remind yourself of the good things in life and what you’re grateful for
- spend time with friends
- when your anxiety increases use distraction - count trees, houses, objects in the room or whatever else is around you.
1) Rothschild, B. (2000) The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment
2) International Society for the Study of Dissociation, 2002; Martinez-Toboas & Guillermo, 2000; Saxe, van der Kolk, Berkowitz, Chinman, Hall, Lieberg & Schwartz, 1993
3) Yoga as a Complementary Treatment for Chronic PTSD, Trauma Centre at JRI
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About Carolyn Gillan
Carolyn Gillan is fully qualified clinical hypnotherapist and BACP accredited counsellor based in Plymouth, Devon. Carolyn combines her expertise as a hypnotherapist and counsellor to help clients find solutions and achieve their goals.