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What It's Like to Dissociate (and 4 Tips for Making It Through)

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I remember the first time it happened.

I was 11 years old, standing in a hallway full of my peers as we walked to our classroom at church. As I’m looking around, my world suddenly changed. Nothing felt real anymore.

Am I dreaming? Why does everything look so fuzzy and dark? Why are the voices of the people around me suddenly muffled?

I remember going home and telling my mom what happened. I felt so confused, scared and wondered what was wrong with me. She comforted me, but she didn’t completely understand what I had experienced. She told me it was probably just my hormones starting to change because of my age. I assumed she was probably right. I didn’t worry about it much anymore until it happened again and again. At some point in my 20s, it became a part of my everyday life.

When I was in college I learned I had dissociative disorder, which is often a result of trauma, and is accompanied by its best friend, anxiety. Dissociation is the most bizarre thing I have ever experienced. Do you know when you’re dreaming and everything looks really vague? The lighting is dim. Someone says something to you, and it sounds like a muffled mess of words you can barely make out? That’s exactly what it feels like to me, except it’s real life.

I can look down at my hands and not even realize they’re mine. I can be walking down the aisle at the grocery store and all of a sudden, it becomes stretched. It looks like it’s a mile long. Things become so distorted I may not even know where I am anymore. It usually leaves me feeling like like I’m about to pass out. I have a couple of times because the feeling becomes so overwhelming that my body needs to peace out for a bit.

What I hate the most is when I dissociate while I’m in a conversation with someone. I’m no longer able to hear and process what they are saying. I usually just try to smile, nod my head and pretend I’m following along.

I’ve found that even though I can experience dissociation at any time, being in situations with lots of noise and movement is the biggest trigger for me. I’m super sensitive to excessive audio and visual stimuli. Therefore, I try to avoid situations where I know I’ll be exposed to those things. When you dissociate, it’s basically your brain trying to protect you from “danger.” It’s a good thing when you’re in an actual dangerous situation, but it’s just plain annoying when your brain identifies simple everyday things as danger.

Before I got used to the fact that this is part of my daily life, I would feel like I was losing it, and my anxiety would skyrocket. Sometimes, I still have to pinch myself or pat myself on top of the head to remind myself I am still here. It’s like watching a movie starring everyone around you, but you’re sitting in the audience. Thankfully, these moments usually only last for a few minutes at a time, but I usually get them multiple times a day. Some people who dissociate experience it for hours and sometimes days on end.

Although I wish I didn’t have to experience dissociation, I’ve learned to deal with it the best I can. If you struggle with dissociation, then here are a few tips that personally help me make it through:

1. Practice positive self-talk.

When I’m experiencing a moment of dissociation, I try to calm down by talking to myself in my head in a positive way. I say things like:

“This is OK. I’ve gotten through this before, and I can do it again.”

“This feeling will pass. It always does. It’s only temporary.”

“I’m real, and this moment is real.”

“I’m basically a bad-ass, and this is probably just what it feels like to travel through time.”

2. Give yourself permission to take a break.

Never force yourself to stay somewhere you know is making you dissociate. I mean, definitely try to power through if you can, but you’ll know when you’ve reached the point where you need to step out. So go get some fresh air, and give your brain some time to return to normal functioning.

3. Tell someone who cares.

This one is tough sometimes because not everyone understands what it’s like, but find someone you trust. Let them know what’s going on. Tell the person who you are with the most so they can look out for the signs and know when you’re in a dissociative state. Come up with a plan, and let them know what is helpful and what isn’t.

4. Learn to love and accept yourself.

This one took me 26 years, but at some point, I realized my struggles just make me more interesting. Yes, I feel like an alien sometimes, but what could be more interesting than that? I do still struggle to even like myself sometimes, but everything I have gone through is all part of my story.

If you struggle with dissociation, please don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can and will get through this!

This post was originally published on Gutsy Girl Holistic.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: January 18, 2017
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