Grounding tips for those who dissociate and can't get back into reality
Let’s see, how to explain dissociation. Let’s start with an official definition.
Dissociation is a mental process of disconnecting from one's thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity.
Now here’s what the top voted comment on Reddit says about dissociation.
It's a trip. Life feels like a dream. You question everything. Is this real? Who am I? Am I dreaming? This has to be a dream. This can't be real. I don't exist. I experienced this about 4-5 years ago and it was terrifying. Just hopeless. Something you can't escape. I really don't even know when it began or how I got over it.
Now I’m going to try and explain what it is from my experience.
The last time I dissociated lasted for about 2 days, and it was horrible. It started with a strong case of anxiety - overthinking, heart racing, feeling like I could cry at the drop of a hat, and then everything shifted. Suddenly things were…different. Not better, but not worse.
Dissociation is actually an evolutionary tactic. My therapist explained this to me recently. Back in the early day of humans, we were seeing some pretty horrific stuff. Horrible sickness, animal attacks, war, you name it. To cope with these traumatic events, the brain would dissociate, and remove you (or at least, in your own perception) from the reality of what was going on. Evolutionarily, this is great, because it means you can then exist in war/horror/destruction and function without the setback of your brain going “holy shit what is this” every few seconds.
However, for most of us in 2018, we aren’t exposed to horrific things like the above often - if ever. But our brain doesn’t know that. So when we live, or relive something traumatic (which can cause anxiety) our brain will try to save us, and have us dissociate.
This means, basically, that your brain makes reality not feel real.
Dissociation does feel like a dream. I had an especially horrible case the last time I slipped into it, because when it started, I took an edible like a god damn fool! Of things I would never recommend to anyone, that ranks pretty high on the list.
I remember laying in bed that night and hearing the sound of New York City traffic outside my window and thinking to myself that it was so strange that people down there existed, and that cars would honk. I really wanted to go downstairs and just be a part of the city, and interact with people on the sidewalk, but I knew that if I went down, I wouldn’t be acknowledged or recognized by anyone. It felt like my life was parallel to everyone else’s. Like everyone was living in true reality, but I was a half point away from it and just couldn’t be on the same plane.
I woke up the next morning and thought I was still high. It wasn’t until halfway through my walk to work when I realized that I was stuck in dissociation.
I sat at my desk and wondered what would happen if I loudly played porn on my laptop. People would stare, but what would it matter? If I got fired from doing that, what would that matter? I tried for nearly an hour to think of things that matter and kept coming up empty handed. I was convincing myself of a frightening thing - that nothing at all mattered - but I wasn’t anxious or depressed at the thought, just incredibly apathetic.
My brain had turned off all caring so I could exist in this time of “trauma”, but since I wasn’t in any real danger, all I could do was focus on how I was dissociating, instead of using it how my brain intended.
I finally broke out of it after about 36 hours, and went to my therapist the next day. She talked me through where it comes from, and then gave me some tips on how to break out of it the next time.
1. Pinch your thigh
Or your hand, or anything. Touch yourself all over, maybe even give yourself a few slaps in certain areas. Anything to get your sense of feeling activated, and remind yourself that you’re in this reality.
2. Chew on ice
I think a popsicle would taste better, but if you’re at work or something ice is probably your best bet. Also put the ice on your body and feel how cold it is.
3. Look around the room and categorize things
This one helped a lot for me. Try to find 5 blue items in the room. Now try to find 3 items that start with the letter “T”. Keep making up games like this for different items until you’ve exhausted the room.
4. Eat and drink something
Simple acts like this will make your reality feel a bit more routine
5. Smell something
(And make it something nice, you’re dissociating for god’s sake! Have a treat!) Perfume, hand soap, deodorant, you name it. Maybe even walk to a bakery and smell the food inside.
6. Put an elastic band on your wrist
And then snap it. Keep snapping for about a minute, then try some of these other options.
All of these techniques are called “grounding” and they work to help you break out of the dissociation. When you come out of it, you might feel a bit embarrassed, nervous, but definitely grateful. Dissociating always sucks, and makes you really appreciate life when you feel like you’re connected to it.
Also, if you dissociate I strongly suggest you give therapy a try. Things like stress, anxiety and trauma make dissociating more common, and if you’re able to work on yourself and limit the stress and anxiety you feel then dissociating will become more rare.
If you have any more grounding tips, let me know! Different things work well for different people and it would be great to have an expansive list of tricks that you can try the next time this happens to you.