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  • Writer's pictureDr Jo Johnson

Your brain is an escape artist

Dissociation is a concept I’m coming across more and more.

The word is from a Latin root, dissociatio, meaning to ‘sever’ or ‘separate’. (It does sound like a Harry Potter spell, too.)

People who have been through trauma often report experiences such as:

~ feeling like it was happening to someone else

~ they were looking down at themselves while it was happening

~ they didn’t feel much at the time

~ they don't remember certain things about it

These are common responses, and are helpful and adaptive in that moment.

When an experience is overwhelming and unbearable, it makes total sense that we unplug from feeling and distance ourselves from it as much as possible.

Dissociation is your brain's safety valve: an ability that helps people survive in extreme circumstances.

It’s not only functional: The brain’s capacities are extraordinarily creative and beautiful.

I’ve so often been moved by the privilege of someone telling me about images, stories, friends, safe places, worlds they’ve needed and been able to create. It’s a superpower.

Sometimes though, this ability to ‘unplug’ can mean that, in the longer term, someone feels disconnected from themselves or from the world around them.

In their amazing book Dissociation Made Simple, Dr Jamie Marich encourages us all to think about the everyday ways in which we dissociate as one way of understanding this phenomenon better.

As a psychologist, I find it really helpful to relate concepts to my own life as much as possible.

There are many everyday ways in which we dissociate.

Who doesn’t daydream or drift off in a boring meeting?

Or find themselves in a situation where you just need to ignore a headache and get on with the thing you’re doing?

Or use social media to distract yourself from something you’d rather not think about right now?

It can even become habitual and unintentional - we dissociate from the fact that we are dissociating.

(Anyone else been in that situation where you’re sitting with your friends and suddenly you realise that everyone has their phones out, each in their own little world?)

It’s definitely been me, sat in a restaurant scrolling and someone needing to say “hey, come back” to get me out of it and back into my surroundings.

It’s not a bad thing per se, but in therapy we’re encouraged to getting better at noticing when things are happening and think about the function of it.

So you can decide:

Is this helping me?
Is it serving me in this moment?
What effect is it having on others?

How to do this? Moments of self-reflection. Ask yourself:

~ What was I trying to avoid, that moment I got my phone out?

~ Is it really overwhelming, or can I sit with it a bit and see what’s there?

~ What sensations are in my body right now?

~ What is my body telling me? Am I safe right now?

~ Have I been trying to ignore something that needs attending to?

A mindful noticing:

The room around you

Things you can see

Things you can hear

Things you are noticing in your body

(Are there feelings of calm, tension? What else is there? Where is it located in the body?

This practice will build your focus, concentration and, over time, your ability to respond calmly in stressful situations.

It can also just feel good.

Do you relate to any of the above?

When does disconnecting from the present moment serve you in your life, and when is it an unhelpful habit? Feel free to leave a comment, I’d love to know!

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