Do you sometimes feel like your loved one isn’t ‘there’, as if they have difficulty hearing or even seeing you?
Do you witness them sitting at the kitchen table, staring into space for an hour or two?
You might be wondering why your loved one does this, and is it normal? It’s called Dissociation.
Dissociation is an umbrella term used to describe the vast spectrum of ways our mind copes with extreme stress and trauma. It is quite common for people to experience mild forms of Dissociation after a stressful or overwhelming day, e.g. having no recollection of driving from A to B, or ‘spacing out’ when watching TV.
Fight or Flight mode
Consequently, there is a direct relationship between the severity of the dissociation and the trauma that initially necessitated it. Our body has a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response which helps us save ourselves when we feel under physical, social, or emotional threat. However, if an individual is repeatedly forced into terrifying and traumatic situations where they cannot defend or save themselves, the brain resorts to ‘fright’ mode where the body shuts down, the brain disengages and we ‘play dead’. These occurrences typically arise to help the person cope with more severe forms of trauma, during which their capacity to cope is overloaded. Supporting research and brain scans show an absence of brain activity during dissociative episodes.
Your loved one may report genuinely having no recollection of conversations you’ve had, or not remembering meeting certain people or completing activities. It’s can be as if they are two people. This could be signs that your loved one is dissociating, and you may be wondering what to do, and how can you help them? Let’s start by helping you understand Dissociation a little more.
- Depersonalisation – such as out of body experiences, prolonged disconnection from the present moment
- Derealisation – such as feeling like one’s body, life, or experience isn’t real, or ‘like a dream’
- Dissociative Amnesia – includes forgetting events that occurred in order to avoid memories of physical or emotional pain
The most severe form of dissociation is known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously Multiple Personality Disorder). This is where the severity and frequency of the experienced trauma is so extreme, that the only survival mechanism left is to pretend the abuse is happening to someone else (i.e. by creating an alternate entity within the person).
It is important to understand that Dissociation is an adaptive and necessary coping mechanism that continues to occur in the absence of a current threat. If anyone was placed in a similar traumatic situation, they would also experience similar dissociative symptoms. It is not an indication of weakness, it is a testament to what your loved one has been through and how they have developed an effective coping mechanism to survive.
Tips for Helping Loved Ones
- Try letting them know you are with them, (even if you believe they cannot hear you) and they are safe, gently and calmly commentate to them about things that are happening in that moment, e.g. I can see a bird sitting on the tree out there. Can you hear it chirping? I can hear the clock ticking. It is almost 5pm, I’ll be making dinner soon. Can you feel the carpet? It feels soft and cozy, I could almost fall asleep, etc).
- Touch their hand but be mindful this could create a reaction.
- Bring a blanket, pillow, and a drink to your loved one, and gently let them know these things are there if they would like it.
If you suspect your loved one experiences dissociative episodes, it is important to speak with them about it once they have returned to their usual selves. Ask them how you could best help them during an episode.
If the symptoms appear to increase in severity or frequency, and you know they experienced childhood trauma or abuse, it would be helpful to gently encourage them to see a professional. Offer to attend the session with them if they would like your support. Psychological treatment will help them recognise and understand what triggers their Dissociation, provide a safe environment to emotionally process past traumas, and learn alternative coping skills when feeling distressed or overwhelmed.
Written By Clinical Psychologist Dr Bianca Heng – www.creatingchange.net.au