Figuring out what triggers your dissociation can be a time consuming process. There’s an inherent challenge in noticing the cue for an experience that by nature reduces your awareness. Anything can be a trigger, however subtle or obscure. There will be a story behind each one, a logic to it that makes sense once you put the pieces together, but when you are at the start of in the middle of that particular jig saw puzzle, often things seem random, unpredictable, and bizarre. People often feel totally defeated and crazy. It’s a huge challenge to believe that things will make more sense down the track, and to hold on to the possibility of recovery.
Something worth keeping in mind is that dissociation can be its own trigger. What first sets something off and what sustains it can be very different processes. Because dissociation is often a response to some kind of overwhelming stress – and because experiencing dissociation can be overwhelmingly stressful, it can be very easy to get caught in a loop where the dissociation triggers itself.
Not everyone experiences dissociation as stressful. For some people, dissociation is sweet relief from intense feelings or overwhelming pain. (see Understanding Emotional Flooding) It is the anaesthetic of life, the calm in the eye of the storm, the still peace of an animal doomed to die. For others, even massive dissociation comes with its own emotional disconnection that shields them from the impact of their experiences. People may describe amnesia, derealisation, or depersonalisation with a kind of numbness or indifference, as if they are telling a story that happened to someone else. However, not everyone gets this emotional buffering – or not all the time. For others of us, we are intensely aware of our dissociation, and fighting against it. We may feel as if we are behind glass, or underwater, or buried alive, or dreaming and unable to wake up, but the struggle to feel more real and connected is terrifying when it’s unsuccessful. Trapped in a psychological limbo with no way home we can become frantic and distraught.
When dissociation is our own personal fuse box, blowing out whenever the stress is too high, the stress of our dissociation can trigger more of it. The more distressed we are by it, the deeper it gets, and the more distressed we become. Fear can be a powerful trigger of dissociation, and experiences of dissociation can trigger intense fear and helplessness. Severe dissociation that we don’t understand, have never seen in others, have no language for, and can’t seem to make stop can be a very traumatic experience. When we better understand our experiences, learn a language for them, discover that they are normal, universal – not only to humans but to mammals, protective, and can be endured and worked with to resolve it – our fear diminishes. Our sense of powerlessness can ease when we understand that our brain is trying to protect us and is not the enemy. Our sense of loneliness and alienation can calm when we find that dissociation is extremely common but merely infrequently spoken about, a large if hidden aspect of the human experience. It is possible to learn more and fear less about dissociation, to be able to feel the triggers and foresee the disconnection without terror, to learn to lean into it and know that it is protective and will pass. It is possible to break the loop and allow the dissociation to become discrete episodes or at least a cycle that shifts between low and high levels at times of different stress.
Another aspect that can lock us into a dissociation loop is how we respond to it. Some people have a passive response to dissociation, sleepwalking through their lives. At the other end of the spectrum, people can become so distressed by and intolerant of it that they resort to extreme measures to break free of it. They may self harm, have compulsive sex, take needless risks, or abuse substances to try and feel something or reassure themselves they are alive. Traumatic replay can be part of this. Putting their mind or bodies into various forms of crisis can temporarily relieve dissociation by countering it with a burst of crisis mode in which we are energised, focused, and profoundly in the moment. However these crises can also be the stress that triggers more dissociation, entangling us in a loop that our efforts to escape only deepen.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and sometimes simply recoginsing this pattern can be enough to break it. It’s certainly something I’ve seen a lot in those of us who have become deeply and devastatingly dissociative, and it can sometimes explain the way that helpful dissociation has developed over time into the ‘pathological’ and distressing kind that takes away from our expereince of life rather than protects it. Other ways of working with dissociation that may be more helpful are
- Increasing our sense of safety – look at my Trauma Recovery Links for more ideas such as Nesting, Artificial Skin, and Territory
- Grounding Techniques
- Learning to manage the triggers of our dissociation
- Rethinking our relationship to dissociation – Dissociation is a super power
- Exploring possibly becoming more skilled at being dissociative, rather than trying to stop being dissociative – see Recovery and Contradictions
For more about dissociation, see my Dissociation Links.