Known to “Zone Out”? The Dangers of Dissociation

We can all ‘space out’ now and then. We get to work and realise we haven’t noticed a thing we walked past, or find we are on the last biscuit without realising.

And when big life change comes, again, it’s a normal response to feel overwhelmed. Anyone who has lost their job, or lost a loved one, knows that days can roll together in a sort of fog.

But what if you zone out more often then most? If you constantly find that at the very moment you need to be sharp-witted or share your feelings, you are lost in the clouds and unable to come down?

Then you could be suffering a more serious psychological response called ‘dissociation’.

What is dissociation?

Dissociation is when instead of staying present in the face of stress you exit your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations and zone out. It’s considered a defence mechanism in psychoanalytic theory

And what is a defence mechanism? They are coping methods we develop as children to handle difficult situations and feel less pain.

Dissociation, for example, is actually a very smart tactic for a child growing up in a stressful environment.  Connected to the brain’s primal ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ stress response, the child must choose ‘freeze’ as they are too young and vulnerable to run off and obviously can’t fight against an adult. They go numb, floating away from their thoughts and feelings.

Of course the problem comes when we pull dissociation, so useful as a child, into our adult lives. Going blank when your partner wants a serious discussion or feeling like you are floating out of your body when your boss asks your opinion on a merger in a board meeting? Not so useful.

The very coping mechanism that got you through childhood, left unrecognised, will sabotage your adult life and leave you mired in shame, feeeling misunderstood, and even unable to reach your potential.

What does dissociation look like? Signs to watch for

  • you often feel ‘spacey’, ‘floaty’, or like your brain is ‘foggy’
  • you might even get sleepy whenever life gets challenging
  • people say you are really calm under stress, but the truth is you are just numb
  • the more stressful a situation, the less you can think clearly
  • you can have a sense you are watching your life instead of in it, as if life is a movie you are watching
  • when people ask how you are feeling you find it difficult to know
  • others often get frustrated as they think you aren’t listening
  • you have delayed reactions – what you really wanted to say or do in a situation a day or several days later but very rarely in the moment
  • you might sometimes even feel disconnected from your body, as if you aren’t quite in it
  • you can easily overlook important details and forget moments
  • you had a difficult or traumatic childhood
  • you suffered abuse as a child or teenager

Why me? How dissociation develops

Again, as a defence mechanism, dissociation develops when you are young and need a way to escape feeling threatened.

Of all defense mechanisms, dissociation is the one most related to trauma. Most children who suffered abuse, either sexual abuse, physical abuse, or emotional abuse, develop the habit of dissociation. Children growing up in violent or unstable environments are also common candidates, such as children of addicts.

The dangers of dissociation

Why does it matter if you tend to ‘vacate the premise’ when life gets a bit too demanding? There are several reasons to be concerned, which can include:

  • you miss opportunities as others think you aren’t interested when you are
  • others see you as cool and aloof when you really aren’t
  • you miss out on the chance to communicate how you really feel
  • you upset others by not being responsive when they need you to be
  • when you do decide how you think and feel (days later) it’s too late
  • you don’t actually process your reactions and emotions but repress them
  • your repressed emotions can lead to depression and anxiety
  • relationships can suffer, leaving you dealing with  loneliness
  • you can under-perform in life if you disassociate too much
  • you can settle for unhealthy relationships and situations because you overlook reality and details

And, if your dissociation goes unrecognised and unresolved and you then experience more life trauma, there is a higher risk of developing a more serious dissociative disorder, such as multiple personality disorder or depersonalisation-derealisation disorder . These can include symptoms like not recognising yourself in the mirror, feeling like your body isn’t part of you, or feeling like you are more than one person.

What can I do if I have a problem with dissociation?

Defence mechanisms tend to be so second nature it can be hard to even notice when they start and end. Writing a journal in the evening can be helpful. Where in the day did you dissociate? What do you really feel and think now, compared to what you thought you did when zoned out?

It’s suggested dissociation is also connected to the nervous system. It’s as if your body is a computer that reaches overload for input then just shuts down. It could be postulated that those with traumatic childhoods would be more likely to have a sensitive nervous system that overloads – jumpiness is a major symptom of PTSD, for example.

So work to find ways to ground and calm yourself. This might be taking up mindfulness meditation, or yoga, or trying visualisation techniques that help you feel centred.

A counsellor or psychotherapist can be quite necessary to truly break the pattern of dissociation. He or she can make sure you have the support and safe environment necessary to navigate past painful experiences, and try new and more effective behaviours.

Talk therapy can be intense, and for someone with a habit of ‘checking out’ under stress there is a chance you’ll be more overloaded and feel the urge to disengage even more. So it’s important to seek a therapist who is experienced and understand how to work with clients with dissociation.

Harley Therapy only offers therapists who have at minimum five-year clinical experience, and provides therapists worldwide via Skype counselling.

Do you have a question about dissociation we haven’t answered? Ask below in the comment box. 


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