"How can you possibly stop zoning out when you have no control?"
Actually, you do have control.
The secret is knowing that being 'clear headed and focused' is the responsibility of your autonomic nervous system.
Dr. LaCombe is a 20-year veteran Psychologist and Consultant. She explains if you want to know 'how to stop zoning out' it begins with understanding your nervous system.
Updated: March 20, 2022
Zoning out? Spacey? Going on autopilot? That's dissociation!
Ever found yourself staring at a computer screen and not taking anything in?
Chances are you just had a little dissociative moment. That's what clinicians call that spacey feeling - dissociation.
It's a state somewhere between sleep and waking, a little of both, simultaneously.
Some folks feel a bit foggy headed. For others, vision is not as sharp or images are fuzzy around the edges. Some describe it as if they are looking through a veil, feeling emotionally numb.
Zoning out is common when chatting
You may not realize this: "talking" with others actually uses up energy in your nervous system.
This "usage" is not about the nutrients you get from food, it's the energy you get from neurotransmitters in your brain.
Let's say you're talking with your friend, you hear her voice. You're nodding in agreement but you're not really there — you're physically with her, but not all there.
Then your friend waves her hand in front of your face — "woohoo!!" — and you pop back into awareness.
Granted it's a mild form of dissociation. However, if this is a regular thing with you, then now's the time to fix that.
"Highway hypnosis" why you may get sleepy while driving
You've probably dissociated but not recognized it. Say you're driving along - not particularly tired - and you can't keep your eyes open! That's dissociation.
This zoning out or spacey feeling - sometimes called "highway hypnosis" - is a sign your nervous system is maxed.
You may have gone three blocks and now you can't recall seeing anything that you drove past.
It's particularly unsettling because you begin to wonder "what else have I've missed?"
Is highway hypnosis from a lack of sleep?
Sure highway hypnosis can be triggered by a lack of sleep - whether driving during the day after a sleepless night (or if you're chronically sleep deprived) or whether it's happening at night when your body is acclimatized to sleeping at that time.
In all instances, whether fighting sleep or whether you're not even physically tired, the nervous system is the root cause.
Your nervous system capacity is being challenged. That's because fighting sleep takes a lot of energy and there's only so much the nervous system can take in.
However, if you imagine for an instance that your nervous system had a much larger capacity to tolerate stimulation then you might not be prone to slipping into highway hypnosis.
Indeed, not everyone zones out on long drives. Their nervous system capacity is bigger and can handle more.
Zoning out? Yes, it'll affect your relationships
Sometimes, you may feel that "something is wrong" or feel removed from your surroundings and/or distanced from people, almost as if you don't belong.
You may have been functioning in the outside world but the real you went underground to some other place. In other words, you are "just not there".
It's most evident in the eyes. When you're experiencing dissociation others might notice you staring out into space.
The unseen problem is that dissociation severely limits our perceptions. It's like being distracted and then some.
It's a sign that you're less aware of the subtitles in your interactions with others.
Yes, as hard as it is to appreciate at this point, there's a good chance you're missing important details in your relationships.
You may enter psychotherapy and be dissociative but be unaware of its presence. You might not even know what dissociation is. However, you are likely aware of the problems associated with being in a dissociative state.
Dissociation is a survival mechanism
Dissociation is a protective mechanism called up by the nervous system when it reaches its maximum capacity to process stimulation (both internally and externally).
When I say "stimulation" that includes things that are considered pleasant or exciting.
Imagine having to interact with people all day and by the end of the day you can't speak another word. You go home to regroup, anxious to get into your latest book. But you can't concentrate. You keep "floating" away into a thoughtless and timeless void. Oddly enough, your favourite book seems boring.
Dissociation caps the keyed up and restless energy underneath. It numbs the body so that one feels less internal distress. It's a good temporary back up plan devised by nature for coping when we feel overwhelmed. But it has its drawbacks.
Zoning out is a type of freeze response
To the degree that you are dissociative, will be the degree of impairment in your ability to take appropriate fight or flight responses (e.g. being physically threatened).
You see, dissociation is a type of freeze state.
In other words, you're more likely to move into an acute freeze state whether you want to or not (e.g. freezing at gun point during a bank robbery, not being able to run when there's danger).
Many people will recognize less severe forms of dissociation in themselves because they've been there.
Still others who are chronically dissociative remark that it doesn't take very much stimulation (snarled traffic, lunch with a friend, a quick visit to the mall) before their nervous system is overwhelmed and dissociation sets in.
Sometimes the feeling can be quite intoxicating. When you feel starry-eyed you'll also feel a strong impulse to just keep staring. That's because opiates are being released in the brain. These make you feel numb and they tend to mask your emotional pain.
Yup, that's right, we have our very own drug dispensing system. Who would have thought.
(By the way, I was able to overcome that strong pull. If you'd care to learn how I was able to overcome that foggy-headedness. Here's a movie I created that explains it.
Are you dissociating in, or out?
Just so you know, not everyone experiences dissociation as a feeling of going outward.
Unlike the dissociative feeling of "floating on the outside" dissociating "in" feels as if the world has receded and you are terrifyingly alone. It's like the calm before the storm.
This type reminds me of one of worse side effects of this checkout state: you become a stranger to yourself.
Being "checked out" means you're also disconnected from yourself
You see, when the nervous system reaches its max as it does when we're zoning out, the reptilian part of our brain takes over. It believes your survival is at stake so it's going to act accordingly.
And thinking of "you" or "being with yourself" is a luxury, it can't afford.
Why feeling checked out is not safe
By the time you're feeling spacey or checked out, your nervous system has already learned that the world is a dangerous place.
Even though you may not feel unsafe, your reptilian lizard brain does. And that's why you're more on guard than the average person - why you may not trust as others do.
This is only half of it. This dynamic can swing both ways.
Sometimes our fears are so blocked we're immune to the message. We end up putting ourselves at greater risk than the average person (eg. walking alone down a dangerous street at midnight)
When dissociation is chronic...
You may have heard someone who quit smoking making the remark that:
"Boy, food sure tastes good now!"
Now imagine if all your senses were "dulled".
When dissociation becomes chronic, it feels unbearable. That's because you're completely cut off from your normal sensory experience.
You see, it's our sensory experience that rounds out the richness of life. Imagine for a moment never hearing your favourite piece of music or being able to catch a sunset . . . maybe never feeling the warmth of the hot sun or the cuddly softness of a pet's fur.
We might deal losing one of these senses. Imagine what it'd feel like if they were all muted!
At some level you'd sense you're operating on a different plane than the rest of the world. Although you know something is amiss you can't put a finger on it.
You'd also understand why anyone in this place might turn to addictive or self-injurious behaviours to seek temporary "relief" (eg. cutting, burning).
You see, chronic dissociation makes you feel invisible and powerless. It impairs your ability to connect with others to such a degree that we're sometimes unable to care for ourselves or others (e.g. as a mother might care for an infant).
How to stop zoning out
No one need be shut out from living a full life by the mask of dissociation. There is a way to move beyond it. I know. Not only have I seen remarkable recoveries with numerous clients, I've benefited enormously from my own therapy.
Not any therapy mind you. I received therapy that specifically targeted my nervous system getting back to self-regulation.
I can proudly say that dissociation no longer holds me back from the life I was meant to live. I will always be grateful to my therapist for that. (You can learn more about that here. This link will open an new tab.)
Zoning out - it's a sign your nervous system is in trouble!
We experience dissociative states when our nervous system is strained to the limit. We're "too full". In other words, we've inadvertently taken in more stimulation than the nervous system can handle.
Life circumstances can overwhelm the nervous system at any time in our growth or later, for example through physical traumatic events. Unresolved issues and traumas can ignite the dissociative pathways.
Think of the operating system in a computer. When its' maximum capacity is reached it shuts down inessential software programs in order to save its resources for critical functions, while ensuring that important files are not lost.
In effect, the brain does the same thing. When maximum nervous system processing capacity has been reached, the dissociative mechanism comes on line and shuts down less important systems such as our ability to concentrate.
This doesn't always work to your advantage in a modern world. For example, even if you wanted to study for that midterm your nervous system could have other plans!
You won't notice when you start to zone out or get spacey
Dissociation comes online seamlessly and automatically. That is, you probably won't even recognize the moment you start dissociating.
As I was saying above, dissociation occurs when too much arousal is triggered in the nervous system. Shutting down some functions saves enough energy for backing up survival-related strategies, such as awareness of non-verbal behaviors in others, or where the door is, etc.
By shutting out irrelevant sensations, enough energy is saved to power optimal cortex (cognitive) and limbic (emotions) functioning.
Dissociation doesn't mean you're psychotic
When you're dissociating, you can still function in the world, it's just that you're experiencing a degree of "detachment".
It's important to differentiate between a "detachment" from reality and a "loss" of reality which is more characteristic of psychosis.
It's not unusual for someone suffering from psychosis to lose all touch with reality such that they cannot care for themselves. They may for instance be lost in a world of different voices and images.
Mostly though, folks suffering from psychosis have "psychotic episodes". Newer type remedies including pharmaceuticals have made it possible to reduce the incidence of these episodes.
Is dissociation related to ADD?
Before I answer this question I want you to know that many folks who have ADD - yes even those who've been diagnosed as having ADD - are actually suffering from nervous system dysregulation and NOT ADD.
Any experienced body-based therapist will tell you that.
Somatic therapists know this because as we help our clients to have healthier nervous systems, the ADD symptoms disappear.
You see when the nervous system is dysregulated it looks like ADD.
It's important to understand that the nervous system naturally fluctuates up and down. It's just that when you're highly activated, those fluctuations mimic the same characteristics as ADD. (That is, they happen more frequently.)
Now I'm not going to disagree with you if you happen to believe that you have ADD. You may indeed be suffering from ADD.
In either case, whether you have ADD or not, you're going to be prone to dissociate. Both dissociation and ADD or ADD-like symptoms are problems related to nervous system dysregulation.
Dissociation normally gets worse -
unless you take action
The nervous system is either moving towards greater self-regulation or deteriorating into dysregulation (also spelled disregulation).
As people age, unless they're engaging in some activity to regularly maintain their nervous system health, they'll get worse.
Most somatic therapists would probably agree with me when I say that many signs of aging are actually preventable and indeed, reversible.
(If you think you might be ready to talk to a therapist, give this some thought before you set out.)
How to deal with zoning out
Sadly, unresolved childhood issues can easily be triggered when you take on the role as a parent. Even if you vowed to parent differently those old pathways remain, preventing you from being the attuned, caring parent you want to be.
For instance, you may still be able to change your baby's diaper, feed her, even sing to her and play with her, except it feels mechanical, as if one is cut off from one's own heart.
Dissociation is like fake relaxation. It numbs your body and your emotions so you feel nothing. It can be akin to a blissful state and as such, can be deceiving to you and your therapist when you attempt relaxation therapy.
If you have a tendency to dissociate and you attempt to do a relaxation technique you may be merely moving into dissociation instead of a relaxation state. Similarly, if you like to meditate all you may be doing is moving into dissociation.
Speaking as a client who suffered from dissociation
I waited way too long to talk with a therapist back when I was a 20-something.
I didn't know how counseling worked, I felt shy about asking for help, and I had no idea what to say. I didn't even know what dissociation was.
(Here I chat more on how it felt being checked out and afraid to go to therapy.)
It was a godsend when I found a therapist who helped me to recognize when I would start to dissociate in the session.
(And just so you know, it wasn't just any kind of therapy. It was body-based - also known as 'somatic' therapy).
Somatic therapy enabled me to develop my capacity to manage larger amounts of stimulation. And, with the help of a good grounding technique I was able to increasingly move out of it. (Grounding helps to discharge the energy.)
As my nervous system became more regulated (i.e. it could handle higher amounts of stimulation) I became less dissociative overall.
Once I began to recognize it in myself between my sessions, at any time I could take immediate steps to reduce my stimulation in order to manage it (i.e. make the room quiet, have a hot bath, turn off the radio etc.).
It wasn't a long-term solution but it gave me a feeling of control over checking out when I didn't want to.
Soon after I was able to utilize the tools from my sessions and apply them regularly any time of day. That started to shift things for me.
Over time, this practice together with my therapy made it possible to dramatically reduce the amount of dissociation I experienced.
So today, it's rare that I feel checked out. And whenever I sense a hint of feeling spacey, I see it as a sign that my nervous system is maxing out. I then take steps to bring myself into the present. I know exactly what to do to get my nervous system back to baseline.
(You can learn these as well - catch my movie to learn more.)
Especially for Therapists
Dissociation is a major stumbling block to progress in therapy because it severely diminishes the client's ability to be present. It's a significant barrier for working on trauma and developmental issues in particular because it can mask the client's true psychophysiological state.
Without a clear picture of what's happening, the therapist can't monitor, let alone regulate, the client's level of activation.
Diane Poole Heller likens dissociation to a circuit breaker shutting off when house wiring gets overloaded. She warns that care must be taken in working with dissociation:
"If this is not done slowly, as we are proposing, often what happens is similar to switching the electrical breakers back on without doing something about the over load that caused the breaker to go off in the first place. If therapists have the client connect too quickly, they can often re-traumatize them." pg. 32.
Speaking as a Therapist
My experience in clinical practice indicates that deep "talk therapy" therapeutic work is not the optimal choice if the client is severely dissociated. As Heller suggests we risk adding to the client's condition by attempting to add more material to the client's already full container.
However, skills must be in place as attempts are made to remove the dissociative "cap" so that the high activation underneath can be dispensed in a titrated, gentle way. Once dissociation is reduced and some resilience restored to the nervous system, it is far easier to monitor activation levels and move the client through the material.
It's been my impression, however, that many therapists haven't been trained to recognize dissociation. (The subject never even came up in my doctoral education.) They thus risk strengthening dissociative symptoms by prematurely dealing with issues that the client's nervous system is as yet unprepared to process.
Heller, Diane P. (2001). Crash Course: A Self-Healing Guide to Auto Accident Trauma & Trauma Recover. Berkely, California: North Atlantic Books. (Part 2 coming out later in 2017)
Rothschild, Babette (2000). The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Scaer, Robert (2014) The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation and Disease. New York: Routledge.
1 Interestingly, in the research literature the subject is typically around dissociation as a trait and in the clinical literature the focus is generally on dissociation as a state. See below for more details;
Hallings-Pott, C., Waller, G., Watson, D., Scragg, P. State Dissociation in Bulimic Eating Disorders: An Experimental Study International Journal of Eating Disordings. 2005; 38:37–41.
I am grateful to Dr. Lynne Zettl and Ed Josephs' clinical demonstrations of how dissociation works and their descriptions of how it impacts the nervous system. Their clinical work clearly demonstrates that we need to address this issue in the literature and in our clinical trials.
On the prevalence of dissociation: I am seeing dissociation in public in greater numbers. I am curious if others are seeing the same.
I found a quote by Grotsein (as quoted by Allan Schore) that suggests a similar impression:
"the phenomenon of dissociation…is more widespread and universal than has hitherto been thought" (pg. 111). From: Grotstein, J. S. (1981). Splitting and projective identification. New York: Jason Aronson.
Favourite Quote from above article: "Dissociation isn’t only about being cut off from our immediate surroundings, it also includes being cut off from ourselves."
The problem with checking out so thoroughly is that it can leave you feeling dead inside, with little or no ability to feel our feelings in our bodies.
The process of repair demands a re-association with the body, a commitment to dive into the body and feel today what we couldn't feel yesterday because it was too dangerous.
With dissociation I go into a dream state...
There have been times when something bad has happened and I would go into a dream state. I will still move and interact with people but once I snap out it'll be like recalling a dream. I have ignored it for years until recently when I suddenly got angry with my boyfriend. I yelled at him and grabbed his arm scratching it. I vaguely remember what I said to him but I have no recollection of grabbing his arm.
After that I realised it was a problem that needs to be fixed, especially before I have children. I went to the doctor and I was able to get 12 free sessions with a psychologist. I wasted two on a woman that was trying to cure my non existent anxiety. So I only have 10 left, but by the sounds of it, it might take a lot longer to fix. I won't be able to afford to keep going once my free sessions run out.
I have been able to live a very normal life despite the horrific childhood and I think i'm a very resilient person to have not fallen apart after all these years. But I do not want to bring children into the world knowing that I could blank out when they become to much for me. It's too dangerous.
Yes, TJ that would be awful not to have children. I can certainly understand why you would want to get this problem addressed before kids. Having children takes a lot of energy.
Not only that . . .
. . . what's even more important is that your children's nervous system will learn from yours.
It is so important to find a therapist that understands dissociative processes. You might want to do some interviewing of therapists on the phone before you make an appointment. Make sure the therapist that you choose has expertise working with folks with significant dissociation. It may take a little longer to find someone who's competent and with whom you feel comfortable. Always remember, you are well worth the search.
TJ, I'd like you to consider one other option. See if there is any way that you can pay out of pocket for therapy. It might mean for instance, delaying the purchase of a home or finding a higher paying job. When therapy works well, it can improve our lives immensely. It's like getting a college degree in that regard. It's an investment in your future for living a life that's healthy and happy. With the right therapist the benefits are enormous.
And as you grow, so will your capacity not only to stay present, but also to be the mother you yearn to be.
I wish you the best on your journey,
Did Marijuana cause my dissociation?
Marijuana is what made me start having dissociation. That is, I would experience these symptoms (especially derealization) while high, and then they eventually transferred into sober life. I am trying to come to terms with it; it is distressing but also interesting.
I thought I might have panic disorder, but I am not anxious all of the time, and I don't seem to have panic attacks, either. I have a weird relationship with this--sometimes I want to induce it because I'm bored and I want to feel an interesting change in consciousness, but other times it is unpleasant. Maybe the cure is just to deal with it.
I used to regret smoking pot--thought it made me this way--but now I find that repeating to myself that my experiences with marijuana contributed to some major creative breakthroughs, I feel better. Let's all dissociate!
Well Anonymous, I see that you don't have a specific question but let me muse. Consider the possibility that you may have already been dissociation before marijuana upted the ante.
The main problem appears to be that your nervous system is dysreguated and the marijuana is how you bring it back into your window of tolerance. The window of tolerance is essentially the range where we experience the "normal" ups and downs of living a life well.
In other words, the window of tolerance is optimal for functioning. It's our more balanced state. And it sounds like for the most part, you're trying to get yourself there through drugs.
You see, sometimes we're hyped and addictive substances bring us back into a "normal" range (the Window of Tolerance* - or as I refer to it as our Comfort Zone).
Other times, dissociation numbs us into boredom. We don't feel the actual "hyped" energy underneath because it's capped. And whether you're aware of it or not, the marijuana is once again bringing you back into the window of tolerance range.
The creative bursts come when you are hanging out in the window of tolerance and finally discovering the benefits of being there. Now, imagine getting there and being there all the time - without the use of drugs!
That's what good therapy - especially body psychotherapy - can do for you.
Take care Anonymous
BTW, you may have read my earlier remarks about one of the easiest ways to get started with therapy i.e. through online counseling. That would have helped me way back when I was first trying therapy. Amazing...today you can started right from home!
I can't work or hold a job (Ex heroin user)
Ive been struggling to figure out what is wrong with me. I keep having episodes that last sometimes weeks , were I am having trouble focusing on objects, feelings of dizziness, confusion and noise around me startles me and really bothers me.
Ive been told it is anxiety so I went with that diagnosis and have been trying different meds to help me with this but so far ativan is the only one that helps but I feel really crappy once I stop taking it so it doesnt help for long term.
I am almost suicidal which for me is something ive never wanted to do, but I just cant live like this I cant work or even hold a job due to being so confused i cant even focus long enough to complete simple tasks.
I was just wondering if there is any other things that could be wrong with me I am an ex heroin addict and I am wondering if maybe the 6years of using finally has caught up to me? Any feedback or questions you have for me would be great.
Hi Dennis, sounds like you could use some immediate help. Congrats on going clean and for putting yourself out there with this post.
It sounds like you have high activation. High activation essentially means your nervous system is amped up. I believe it's amped up due to trauma.
Dizziness, problems in focusing, confusion, exaggerated startle and sensitivity to noise are all common symtpoms of a nervous system suffering the effects of a post-traumatic stress condition. It's like your nervous system is revving way too high.
Let me clarify one thing. It isn't exactly correct to assume your heroin use created your current problem although, it no doubt exacerbated your condition. Many folks in the field of affect regulation and body psychotherapy recognize addictive behaviour as the individual's need to regulate the nervous system. In other words, your heroin use no doubt initially arose out of your need to regulate your emotional states.
But of course as you discovered, while heroin temporarily solves an acute problem, it comes with dire consequences.
The most effective way to down regulate the nervous system for a change that's lasting, is through an attuned therapist who uses right-brain strategies. A good therapist is like an affect regulator. In the safety of a therapeutic relationship, your nervous system can begin to learn to regulate on its own.
Right brain therapy entails using the body in a way that helps to re-set the nervous system at a lower "buzzing" level. Body psychotherapists are specialists in this area as are folks who use mindfulness techniques in their practices.
You may also find the support of holistic practitioners useful. If we've had high activation for a number of years, it can deplete the workings of the internal organs. If you have the resources, see a naturopath, a herbalist etc. to help support your body as you transition through your recovery process.I caution you to avoid getting therapy that is strictly "talk therapy". Find a therapist who specializes in trauma. Your nervous system cannot easily handle being triggered (which is what can happen if the work in your therapy isn't contained).
The important task at this point Dennis, is to calm your nervous system down in a titrated way. To that end, mind body practices are usually a good complement to therapy.
After you feel more settled, you're in a much better place to start digging into traumatic material. I can't emphasize this enough.
Let us know how it works out for you,
Medications to treat dissociation?
I am a 30 year old female with dissociation. I feel like I am going crazy and have decided to visit a psychotherapist. I have an appointment in a few days and was wondering what kind of medication is used to treat dissociation?
Hello Christina, sorry to hear how it's going. Sounds as if the dissociation is causing a great deal of trouble for you. It's good to hear you've booked an appointment to see a psychotherapist.
With regards to medications, as I understand it, there is no medication for dissociation. There are however medications for symptoms related to it such as anxiety and depression.
My preference - as you might guess from my article on medications - is to see a health practitioner such as a naturopath, homeopath or a herbalist who can treat the related symptoms in a gentle, non-invasive way. These practitioners generally recommend the use of supplements, herbs and remedies that are not so strong that they interfere with your therapeutic work.
You probably weren't expecting my personal views about medications so I hope you don't mind if I elaborate on the subject.
Let me explain what I mean by "interferring" with your therapy work.
The progress you make in therapy is state dependent. This means that the gains you achieve rely to some extent on your physiological state at the time. For example, when someone comes off meds, the body state changes and there's a good chance of losing some of the gains they've achieved. So taking the gentler route, in my view, optimizes your chances for getting long lasting change.
Here's what we believe is happening with medications and therapy. Strong medications such as pharmaceutical drugs generally place a limit on the amount of learning your nervous system can do. This is because they tend to restrict the range of emotions for both excitement and stress (which provides relief to the person taking the medication).
However, without that range, the nervous system is learning within a smaller window of potential change in your therapy sessions and so your wins may be less dramatic.
Having said all that, I believe the best treatment is what you are about to do in seeing a therapist. And if your chosen therapist is adept at helping you manage through your emotions your progress will likely be steady. (see "Is therapy working for you?" for more information recognizing progress in your counseling or psychotherapy)
I hope it works out for you Christina,
All the best,
Dissociative internally and externally
Hi Shrinklady, Interesting read, but it goes only so far. My zoning out ends in being someone else. I discover that when I sone back in...
I'm not sure how dissociative I am, but it's a major issue. I'm dissociative internal (even between languages), miss out lots of what happened during a day (need to keep track on paper for that) and external (my partner tells me regularly I wasn't me).
This is just the tip of the iceberg...
I can't function in my daily life, I asked for help from a psychiatrist, but my doctor mentioned already that there are great pills for that. (I'm in France). It's the first time I hear that there are meds, but I doubt any benefits. If I lose my ability to work (which is a part I know next to nothing about), what good is that? Will meds integrate, melt, hide, or otherwise alter the structure? I know I'll have to find out what meds we're talking about, but it is all scary.
I'm not diagnosed DID yet, but so far all the signs look like it. (Changed last names 4 times so far in my life, lived in 5 different countries in the last 10 years and not remembering much of it). I'm a mess... 😀
On top of it all, I think I have some 'parts' that enjoy taking therapists for a ride when things get too hairy... Most of the 'tricks' don't work...
By the way, I'm 41 and I think I've been running away from life during 95% of that. Currently I pose no danger to myself or others, that I managed to be sure of now. Any suggestions??
Hello Femme Perturbee, thanks for dropping by. I can see that you're up against a challenge...inside and out! (I'm being a little cheeky here and not so.)
Here's the bottom line. You need to find a therapist who knows what he or she is doing and someone who will work through the "tricks". Then batton down and go for the ride. It's gonna take time. So choose wisely.
Just to clarify. Meds won't help DID. They can't integrate parts (a goal that's not always in the best interest of the client). Sometimes they are helpful when folks suffer from severe mood swings. The meds bring them more into a middle range that's tolerable.
All the best,
How can I stop this crazy cycle?
Before I enter in dissociation I am usually depressed. A set back from stresses. Usually more than one. I start to feel everything x100. Like my feelings are magnified far beyond a normal person.
When the pain is too much to handle and it starts. I can feel my brain filling with natural pain killers while i am dissociating because i feel nothing. I am kind of floating. I can lose a lot of time doing nothing in a trance almost.
Then when I come out of it...I have an intense need..like i am soo hungry, craving sugar...or drugs/alcohol. Anything. I do NOT use drugs or alcohol as a crutch so I work out until I am beat tired. I will feel the numbness and good feelings for a short while again. I want to do stuff/behaviors that are risky. Drive fast, sex and reckless stuff, Maybe to get my adrenaline up again. I have a lot of nervous energy.
I do have depression and anxiety. I am on 2 antidepressants. Several things happened right before this cycle started. 1, job loss, 2,break up, 3, possible health problems 4,too painful to mention.
What can I do to stop the crazy cycle? OR is this something other than dissociation?
It sounds like the transitions out of dissociation can be quite dramatic for you. No doubt, the job loss, break up and health problems maxed you out . . . as they would many folks. This must be a really difficult time for you.
I think it might take a bit of a balancing act to get out of the cycle. I have a suggestion that will make a big difference depending on how successful you are putting it into practice. Basically, you need to regulate how much stimulation you receive on any given day.
As I have explained in previous posts, we move into dissociation when the "charge" in the nervous system (i.e. the revved up anxious state) gets too high. (And just so you know, the body chooses dissociation. It's not under our conscious control, just as when we come out of it and start buzzing high again, isn't)
You need to gently transition out of dissociation. Reducing the amount of nervous energy in the system beforehand will help a lot.
For example, if you're going out to lunch, followed by shopping and meeting up with friends at the party in the evening - well, that's too much. If you're stressed out at work during the day, pass on going out at night.
It may also be helpful for you to read about the biphasic response (ie. the natural up and down swings of the nervous system.
This will help you understand the cycles you're experiencing. Once you have a better sense of how the nervous works and how your cravings and risky behaviors are your "best" attempts to "match" and "regulate" the uncomfortable sensations you're experiencing, you'll hopefully feel a little better.
The thing is, Jen, in order to ultimately reduce the extremes of these swings you'll need to get the help of a good therapist who understands the importance of nervous system regulation. In my opinion body psychotherapists are the experts at getting a handle on this.
Hope that helps,
I feel like an alien in my own body
Shrinklady, I am new to this whole concept of dissociation, but about a month ago I have been getting panic attacks, and followed by that I am still having a great deal of anxiety. Sometimes, now more frequently than before, I feel like an alien in my own body, as if there is a seperation from me and my actual skin, sometimes its as if I am present in my brain and not the rest of my body, its a very unsettling feeling, and so I just go through every day with this ball in my stomach trying not to think about it.
Are there any ways in which I can help myself, is this a common thing with anxiety/panic? and which therapy would you recommend?
Hi Naz, thanks for your questions. When the body moves into dissociation - that "alien in your body" feeling - it's a sign that your activation has moved up a notch outside your window of capacity to tolerate.
Another way of saying this means that you've experienced too much stimulation for your nervous system to manage.
You see, a nervous system works best when energy can flow both ways - we take energy in and then soon after, we let it go. When we're "maxed out" we're not letting go and the activation piles up. It's like every cell is firing high. This situation occurs when the nervous system is compromised as it often is after traumatic stress.
It may help to know that dissociation is a protective mechanism. The body chooses this response to help you avoid feeling over charged. It's a normal bodily function that comes online when we're too hyped up.
Is it common with anxiety and panic? Very common. Milder forms surface when someone stares out to space after reading a few paragraphs or working on a computer.
However, most folks miss the signs. They've lived with it so long it's their "normal". This was certainly the case for me. And because it was a longstanding part of my coping, I didn't interpret it as something out of the ordinary. It was my adaptation.
Of course, it compromised my perceptions in ways unknowingly until I started to live in a different way.
Dissociation numbs out the body. When it lifts, we feel the activation underneath - often experienced as anxiety. This is progress - however crappy it feels.
There are many ways to help yourself through these uncomfortable sensations. The best way is to resource your body. Because this state is psychophysiological, calming the body will help lift the dissociative "cap".
However, for folks who are chronically dissociative even this may not be enough. They will need the support of another nervous system - hopefully a grounded other (which is where therapy comes in) - to help shift into more regulation. This will likely take some time.
I recommend a body-based therapy, one that brings the whole notion of presence and the felt sense into your world. Body psychotherapy is one such therapy (e.g. Sensoriomotor Psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing, Hakomi, and mindfulness based therapies).
I wish you all the best on your therapeutic journey Naz,
Where do I start to fix this?
I have dissociative amnesia, I can't remember any of my life before age 14 and only a few things since. It's like I've dissociated myself from my entire life. I know that I was abused from age 3 until age 14 and I know who did it, but I don't know what he did.
I've been in therapy for 8 months and still not getting any closer to retreiving my memories... The hardest part is knowing that I have this, knowing what caused it, and not knowing how to fix it. It has caused me to be hopeless. I feel like a lost cause, I really, really do. I have read this entire site and still I think "well i know what dissociation is, I know what caused mine, but where do I start in fixing it? HELP!!!
Hello Jamie, I'm pleased to hear that you've started therapy because I know that it's from within a safe and caring relationship that the nervous system will start to heal. Yet, I sense that you're getting a little frustrated with the slow pace of change so I want say that I hope you will keep trying.
You're right about there not being much information on the site to help you "fix" dissociation. I hope to be more specific in future articles. Until then, I'd like to offer my impressions.
It seems that you're pouring a lot of energy into the hope that somehow uncovering your memories will remove the dissociation. The reality is that your recovery from dissociation isn't necessarily gonna happen by uncovering memories. Recovering lost memories may actually not even be necessary for the nervous system to return to optimal functioning. The healing occurs in relationship with your therapist.
Let me explain.
Dissociation is a psychophysiological process caused by dysregulation of the nervous system. Dysregulation means your nervous system gets too easily tapped out by stimulation. It can only handle so much stress. Dissociation is the end result of this maxed out state.
To "fix" the dissociation it's necessary for your nervous system to experience your emotions in a way that's easier. This happens naturally when we're in the presence of another with whom we have a good connection with.
This is also a body-felt process. You can't talk, or think, your way there. It must be experienced. For instance, it's pretty hard to learn to dance from reading a book. Similarly, you must feel an emotion in order to learn a new way of managing it.
Here's where the relationship with your therapist becomes important. In the safety of a good therapeutic relationship, you will learn to better manage and move through your emotions. You see, without safety, it's pretty hard to access our emotions especially deeply held ones. And as I mentioned, we need to feel an emotion, in order to change our experience of it.
The more that your therapy brings you into awareness of what's happening in the moment, the faster your recovery will be. It's being conscious of our current state whereby the brain more easily adapts to new ways of being.
Now, in saying that, it's also possible to speed up the process by using right brain strategies to calm your body. Because of the mind body connection, we know that calming the body, calms the mind. Yoga, tai chi and light-touch body-based therapies (e.g. craniosacral therapy) are a few possibilities.
I hope that gives you some food for thought Jamie,
I have an exam tomorrow and dissociation was on the lecture, thanks for this help. It's very helpful.
That's super Ellen. Glad you dropped by.
Finds emotional relief through self-abuse (cutting)
I know I'm not fully present some of the time. At times, it's like I'm watching someone live my life. I have experienced a sense that I was looking through plexiglass at the world and I wondered if something was wrong with my eyes. I later found out it was dissociation - it separated me from life around me.
There is a distinct separation between me and this rage and I can't allow it to be present. Is this a type of dissociation I'm doing or is it something else?
Thank-you for your comments Karie. It's wonderful to hear how you're working on yourself and moving through some tough stuff. Your description of dissociation was right on. Others who read it will probably find that useful.
Your post touches on a few topics that I enjoy chatting about. If my hunch is correct, I suspect that the rage that's surfacing reflects some positive things are happening with your nervous system.
That may sound odd at first but let me step back and explain that as I explained above, dissociation is a type of freeze response. When our activation gets too high, we'll move into freeze. However, as the nervous system resiliency starts to return, we will move through the fight or flight response. You might recall that the fight response is one of the survival tactics that gets triggered during traumatic moments. If fighting a foe is not possible, it'll back up into freeze.
This freeze response tends to happen to children who are facing unmet needs or abuse. And in the case of abuse, the offending foe is typically the same person who offered warmth and food creating later difficulties in adult relationships.
Backed up anger or thwarted fight contains enormous amounts of energy and sometimes our nervous system cannot handle it. It shows up as rage. It will take a little while for your nervous system to learn how to manage anger and in time, the rage will dissipate. We suspect that rage is a "young" response for the reason that words often seem inadequate for the intensity of the sensations. That verbal part of the brain has not yet come on line when the trauma occured.
Try to remember that the rage arises from the reptilian part of our brain that takes over when it feels threatened. It's not a feeling that can be "talked" out of. It must be experienced in titrated doses. And the best way I know how is through a body felt process. In other words, it must be felt to be changed.
Another thing to keep in mind Karie is that because anger was so forbidden at home, it's likely there's a lot of fear associated with feeling it. This means you will likely hate the feeling of anger initially. It might take a little while before you're okay with it.
Here's one exercise from body psychotherapy you might want to try. Remember our emotions are body-based so we can use this knowledge to help train ourselves to better manage unruly emotions.
Choose an instance of feeling anger that's small and not overwhelming. Sometimes it's easier to feel angry for someone else for instance. As the anger starts to surface allow yourself to feel the sensations in your body in the moment they arise. Temporarily let go of the source of the anger. (Thinking why you're angry will keep you from dissipating the anger.)
Then allow yourself to imagine slowly moving into a fight response such as a lion roaring, a warrior yelling or a fist moving slowly through the air. The image doesn't matter as long as it gives you a good releasing feeling. As long as you allow yourself to channel the anger through the image, some of your fight response can be shaved off. It's like a training session for your nervous system.
If this proves to be too difficult, you might want to suggest it as an exercise to do with your therapist. He or she would help you decide when the time is right.
All the best on your journey,
Will cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) help?
I had constant dissociation for more than 4 months and I didnt even know I had it. I went to psychologists and they all said I had depression, so then i assumed it was depression too. but now i know its really dissociation, but i'm being treated (cognitive behavioral therapy) for depression and anxiety. will that treatment still help for my dissociation? My dissociation is pretty severe. I experience it 24/7.
I asked Vicki to clarify her experience of dissociation and she replied with:
When I'm feeling my dissociation less, I just feel little more "there" but I still feel out of it. I never feel any emotions, and i feel like i never experience anything in my life. Like everything feels the same, and I have no strong emotions or feelings about it because its just happening to me.. like i'm sitting back and not acting in my life. and i feel this laziness and distance all the time. but sometimes I just feel a little less like that so I can talk to people and stuff..but whenever i talk to people, I never feel like i'm saying those things.. I'm not sure if this is because of my social anxiety or my depression.. but if my cognitive therapy is supposed to cure those things, would it cure my dissociation too?
Hello Vicki, it certainly sounds like dissociation from your description. Dissociation is not uncommon with depression. Both depression and dissociation are types of freeze responses. However, not everyone who finds themselves with depression suffers from dissociation. And there are certainly folks who suffer from dissociation who are not depressed.
I gather from your comments that the idea of depression seems foreign to you. The laziness you describe would certainly be characteristic of depression. In fact, fatigue is more of a defining feature than sadness.
Just so you know, dissociation, depression and social anxiety all have similar roots in dysregulation of the nervous system. So I caution you from diagnosing yourself as having a multitude of problems. Once your nervous system is better regulated, you will improve in all three areas.
There are certainly aspects of CBT that are helpful. Accessing and attending to resources is certainly a useful strategy. What's important is that the tasks that are assigned are in keeping with what you can realistically manage. For instance, it won't do you much good if you are encouraged to go out everyday if this feels undo-able. In fact, it might only serve to bring you into a place of shame.
You mentioned having difficulty in staying connected to yourself when you're talking with others. I'm wondering if this is what may be happening: It seems as you improve slightly, you tap into a very human inclination to connect. However, in doing so, this natural tendency tends to be flooding. In other words, your nervous system cannot manage the increased activation (stimulation) associated with connection.
To better understand how the nervous system manages during depressed states it might be helpful to read these two articles: Signs of Depression and What Causes Depression.
The really critical aspect of therapy - where the healing takes place - is in your interactions with your therapist. In brief, it's how your therapist helps you navigate your emotional states. While this is certainly not the core of CBT therapy, a good therapist does this automatically.
Now, it is possible that you may recover from depression and still be dissociative (although likely much less so). This certainly happened to me. And so, I took the next step in learning how to be more present within my own body. This took me on a journey of self-discovery and I landed into a vision of creating this site.
I wish you all the best on your journey Vicki,
Moderate and severe dissociation?
just wondering could you explain the difference between frequent moderate to severe dissociation and dissociative disorder?
Hi Emerald, thanks for posting these questions. They deserve to be answered with more depth than I could give them in a written response.
I'm also not an expert in what I'm referring to as "severe" other than to say that when the need for dissociation arises early in life (as when the child or infant experiences ongoing ritualized or severe trauma) it causes the dissociative process to be engaged. And owing to the child's developmental process these trauma experiences can be split off into the different parts of ourselves.
How dissociation affects nervous system
"I am grateful to Dr. Lynne Zettl and Ed Josephs' clinical demonstratioins of how dissociation works and their descriptions of how it impacts the nervous system. Their clinical work clearly demonstrates that we need to address this issue in the literature and in our clinical trials."
Could you elaborate on how dissociation (DID especially) effects the nervous system? Can you explain how somatics would help?
About 'Parts' in the therapy
Just to let you know, I find the term 'parts' insulting! - dude, of of the 'parts'
Hi Dude, thanks for your comment. Sorry, I didn't mean to be offensive. I was thinking of 'parts of ourselves'. I'm not an expert in this area but I understand that there is no one 'self' in the brain. We all have many selves. And, some of us are more integrated than others in this regards. It sounds like you have some knowledge of this area.
What about multiple personality disorder (DID)?
Where does DID/MPD fit into this scheme? Do you still feel it is a situation in which the main person needs to become grounded?
Hey there Dude, another interesting question. Glad to hear you know about grounding. It's my opinion that all parts of a "family system" need to benefit from grounding.
The more grounded anyone is or any parts are, the better we can deal with anxiety and therefore, make better decisions for ourselves.