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7 Ways to Help Someone Experiencing Dissociation

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Our bodies seem to want to protect us when our environments — or even our own heads — feel too scary to sit with. I believe this is why dissociation occurs. Dissociation is a protective measure. It is a way of disconnecting ourselves from the triggers that are making us feel unsafe or out of control.

• What is PTSD?

Dissociation feels different for every person. For me, it feels like being in control of my own actions and my own body, but feeling like I am in a dream. Nothing around me feels real, even if I logically know it is truly happening. It is like watching my life happen around me, but being more dead than I am alive. When I come out of these dissociative episodes, I often don’t remember what happened during the episode, and sometimes am disoriented about where I currently am. The aftermath of a dissociative episode can bring up panic, fear, embarrassment, and so many other feelings. It is important to know that dissociation occurs within the context of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and other mental illnesses. It can also occur without the context of a mental illness. Many people may find that they dissociate during times of everyday stressful situations, but may not know that what happened was dissociation.

It is scary watching a friend, family member, or loved one experience these episodes. You may feel helpless, scared or unsure of what to do. If you notice that your loved one is spacing out, staring at the wall, not speaking, suddenly withdrawn, has a delayed reaction time, is complaining of “not feeling real,” etc., your loved one may be dissociating. How can we help a loved one who is dissociating?

Here’s how you can help someone having a dissociative episode cope with this truly frightening feeling. These tips can also be applied to yourself if you are struggling with dissociation.

1. Take the person to a safe space.

Sometimes, dissociative episodes can be triggered if the person is around a large amount of people, is in a small space or is in an extremely sensory stimulating atmosphere. If you can, guide the person out of this unsafe area.

2. Dim the lights or eliminate overstimulation. 

If you notice the person dissociating, try dimming the lights and removing some sources of overstimulation. It may help to turn off music, eliminate bad or powerful smells, etc.

3. Offer the person sensory items. 

Sometimes, it can be the exact opposite! The person may feel they do not have enough sensory stimulation, and may need this stimulation to cope. Good ideas for sensory stimulation can include a weighted blanket, putty, (I recommend Theraputty), a fuzzy sweater, or extra sour or hot candy.

4. Lower your voice.

Sometimes, loud noises can trigger a dissociative response. If you find that this is perpetuating dissociation, lowering your voice and speaking in a hushed tone to the person who is dissociated may help.

5. Bring the person outside. 

It can often help to be in an environment that does not seem enclosing — like the outdoors.

6. Use physical touch when you know it is OK to do so. 

This is a skill that should be used carefully when someone around you is dissociating. Make sure to ask the person who struggles with dissociation if it is OK to touch them, because it may be triggering for some individuals. For others though, physical touch, especially hugs, can help because the deep pressure can be calming.

7. Seek support if the situation becomes unsafe. 

Sometimes, people in dissociative states can act on self-harmful behaviors. If the situation becomes unsafe, asking for help, calling emergency services, or getting other people involved may be a good decision. Use your own judgment!

Remember, if you are struggling with dissociation, there is hope. It will not be like this forever. Dissociation will pass.

Unsplash photo by Sam Burriss

Originally published: October 16, 2017
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