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Let’s Talk About Dissociating, Part 2

Matthew Cuddeback LCSW

*Please be sure to read Let’s Talk About Dissociating Part 1 to get a good start to understanding this difficult experience.

What causes dissociation and what should we do about it? Well, dissociation is almost always a result of trauma. So, when we think about disconnecting mentally like this, we should be thinking about how something very painful happened and our brain is unsure how to address it and, further, if it should be addressed. There are several different sections of your brain that focus on specific functions. Some of the different parts of your brain become so stimulated by this trauma and its effects that other parts of your brain take over functioning as a survival mechanism. When one part is functioning as the primary part of your brain the others take the back seat. 

It’s important to remember that when we are working with trauma timing and pace are key factors in addressing them in a healthy way. That it is to say, sometimes we try to address and process trauma too soon or with too much speed. Other times we take too long. So, it is important to be mindful of why these dissociative episodes happened when they did. Further, we should always be aware of our own reactions and monitoring them for ourselves, the therapist should be doing this as well, and there should be a frequent check in about this. If the time is right, we dig in and monitor how it feels the whole time.

One of the most important things we can do when we are addressing dissociative episodes is to start from a place of curiosity and understanding. Some of the first questions I ask are “Does it bother you?” “Is it a problem for you?” This is to get the wheels turning about the idea that perhaps it’s okay, maybe it is adaptive. We don’t have to fix everything that happens to us and sometimes, even if they are new experiences, it may be okay that they are happening. Further, they are happening for a reason. So, I am less worried in the beginning, about trying to stop it, and more concerned about understanding why it’s happening. This approach also lessons the pressure to “fix the problem.” We are often too focused on fixing these issues that we exacerbate them by putting too much pressure on ourselves to solve the issue.

Once we feel we have explored those areas we then begin to process the trauma that caused them to occur. It is deeply important to understand the traumatic events and their effects. Then, another step is to try and breakdown the power the trauma has over our reactions. If we are able to lessen the power of the connections in our brains between the memory and the feelings that have been attached to the trauma, they weaken. This often results in less frequent dissociative episodes as well as a lessened severity of those episodes. At this point I would remind that it is important to allow yourself grace and understanding about this continuing to occur. Of course, it will not immediately “solve” the issue, but it can help people be better able to manage the episodes when they do occur.

Hopefully as we have explored a few different key aspects of dissociation we have demystified it a bit. We talked in part 1 about misconceptions that too often get in the way of working on this difficult experience. It can be absolutely terrifying to experience, but it is also important to recognize it serves a function and if we can approach these issues with care, empathy, and curiosity we are able to get started on the right foot to address their effects. Then, we start to build on the understanding that this typically is occurring because of trauma, and it is to protect you from damage that can come from experiencing something painful. Once we address these underlying issues the instances of dissociation decrease in frequency and severity. Like many mental health issues, dissociation is scary because of how uncomfortable we are really looking at and understanding it. We should hopefully, all feel more comfortable talking about and normalizing such phenomena. If you experience dissociation hopefully you will feel more comfortable talking to a professional about how to work together to understand and address it appropriately.

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