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  • Fe Robinson

How to reconnect when you dissociate

Today I want to talk about dissociation, and ways of supporting yourself in coming back into connection when you feel you have detached.

Dissociation is a natural, normal capacity we all have, that enables us to disconnect from the world around us, or from ourselves. We can dissociate from parts of our experience, for example our felt sense or emotions, but stay connected to others, for example our thinking. Dissociation can be useful, in many jobs a sense of distance is essential, for example a surgeon cutting the human body, or an emergency responder rescuing people in horrific circumstances. Dissociation is our safety valve if you like, when we are at risk of being overwhelmed it enables us to step back and to cope.

Dissociation becomes a problem however when it is involuntary, unwelcome and hard to return from. It can become a habituated response, and for those who have experienced this as a way of being from childhood may have no idea it is not the only way to be, it may just be their normal. Symptoms of this kind of dissociation vary, They can include feeling detached from your body in depersonalisation, where you may feel as if you’re floating, or unsure of the distinction between others and yourself. You may feel disconnected from your body or parts of your body, or your emotions, and it may be like you are watching yourself. For others derealisation is a problem, feeling as if the world around you is not real. The world may seem far away, or muted or muffled. There may be hazy vision, altered sound perception. For some people there are distinct triggers that bring on flashbacks, where they are suddenly experiencing a past event as if it is happening now, either in pictures, sounds, body sensations or emotions. In severe cases of dissociation people may feel fragmented, as if there is more than one person inside them, and become identity confused or find themselves switching between internal parts entirely.

As you can see, dissociation is a broad concept and individual experiences differ significantly. The key thing to notice is the degree of connection you feel to aspects of your experience - your thinking, your emotions, your felt sense. Can you be aware of them all at the same time, or are there separations?

Where you are not associated, you might use sensory experiences to help yourself back into your body. This might be a strong smell, or a strong taste. Alternatively you might stretch and release a hairband on your wrist to give yourself a sharp feeling. Music might also be a help if there is music that really gets you into a groove. Any strong sensory experience may be helpful, we are each different.

Once in your body, the next goal is to be able to rest there, and not immediately dissociate again. For this, a felt sense of safety is needed. We distance because we are not able to safely experience, and to re-connect, we need safety to be restored. There are many aspects to safety, including thought, emotion, and sensation. For thoughts, we might check out whether there is physical danger present right now, in the space we are in. We might also remind ourselves of the date, the year, our age, and the physical safety of the place we are in, and our control over it.

For emotion, we may use ways to soothe ourselves. Sometimes imagining people we find comforting can be a help, or imagining ideal parents who are attuned and taking care of us. We might journal about feelings, or draw or sculpt to express them, or create poetry or some other expression of what we feel. Being able to safely express what is true for us can be very helpful, but it needs pacing and titrating to make sure it is not overwhelming.

For felt sense we might learn physical ways to ground to regain the capacity to inhabit their body. This might be sensing into our feet or contact points with the earth (e.g. your bottom in the chair). It might be deep breathing into your belly, or slow side to side tapping of your body, or stroking firmly down your arms. There are many ways to ground, we each need to find those that work for us.

I hope this brief article gives a range of ideas for practical ways you can experiment and explore when dissociation is a problem for you. Many people find individualised support helpful to work with dissociative symptoms, if they affect you then do reach out to a psychotherapist or other mental health professional to get help.


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