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minimizing disconnection

Posted Sep 23 2011 4:23pm

Ann, lessening (or eliminating dissociation) is a really good thing to do!

I've always been super interested in dissociation- in fact, don't know if I ever told you guys this, I think I did, but I wrote my dissertation on dissociation and bulimia. Dissocation, just to be clear, and for any of you guys that don't use the word much (which is most of the world... just us mental health people use it often) basically means an alteration in, and disconnection from, specific aspects of ourselves. Dissociation doesn't usually affect intellect, so the person tends to still know what country he/she was born in, who the president is, what 1+1 is... that kind of stuff. 

What it does affect, and can affect greatly, is someone's sense of time, her sense of the world around her, and her sense of herself. When dissociating, someone can feel as if she's "in a zone" or "not real" or "totally numb." She can also loose track of time, loose track of where she is ("highway hypnosis" is a very common and generally harmless dissociative phenomenon- you know, when you are driving along and suddenly you realize you've missed your exit off the freeway? yeah, that's highway hypnosis.). There is a wide range of how much someone can dissociate- every thing from that highway hypnosis (which is common and experienced by many human beings and generally benign, unless you crash your car) to more dramatic states of dissocitation (where people loose track of where they are, who they are, what they're doing... and these can cause not only great distress to people, but put them in dangerous situations).

I've found dissociation to be a common phenomenon in people who are suffering from eating disorders. This doesn't mean you guys are crazy or disturbed or anything like it, so don't even go there.

All it means it that you have an ability to disconnect from yourselves. I've always seen it as a coping/protection strategy. Think of it this way: if you're running along (back in the day) and a saber toothed tiger starts chasing you, being able to disconnect from yourself could be a very helpful thing. I mean, I don't know about you guys, but I personally would probably prefer to be a bit disconnected from my feelings as I'm running for my life away from the saber toothed tiger. And, especially if catches me and I'm going to be his lunch, dude, I definitely want to be disconnected from what I'm feeling! (Again, just my personal preference...).

When you look at it like that, dissociation makes sense, and you can see why we have evolved to be able to do it. Did you guys know that people who are easily hypnotizeable also tend to be the people who have pretty developed capacities to dissociate? funky, huh!

Dissociation evolved as a coping strategy, and it can be very useful for acute, time-limited situations. It's not so good for chronic, sustained, longer-term use. 

But that's just what can happen in an eating disorder- people, along with the eating disordered behaviors (which, for full disclosure, I've always believed induce dissociation- disconnection from ourselves- and that's why people use the behaviors) people learn to live in a somewhat disconnected state (and this state can and does fluctuate- it is not static by any means).

When someone is more stressed, more tired, more afraid.... (you know, all those TOO things we talk about) she will tend to use the dissociation more (just like she'll tend to use the ED behaviors more... which I would say is because she's feeling the need to be more disconnected from herself). One of the big goals of recovery, as far as I'm concerned, is to lessen this dissociation over time, and then eliminate it altogether (although the person does retain the ability to dissociate, she just doesn't use it- unless she gets chased by a saber toothed tiger).

So... Ann, I love your question about how do you snap yourself out of that dissociation. The first thing is to notice that it's happening. So, gold star for you!!!! Noticing it can be a challenge- because what does dissociation do? it disconnects us from ourselves... and that makes it harder to notice things about ourselves.

Second, you can work to identify, acknowledge and understand why you may be feeling the need to be more disconnected from yourself. (also, remember here folks that dissociation is not a conscious choice- unitl you get really, really practiced at understanding it and regulating it- most of the time, like when we are being chased by the tiger, we simply dissociate instantly and without conscious thought- so it's also not fair here to say to yourselves anything about being a loser or a wuss because you may get disconnected to yourself sometimes.... sheesh).

Third, you can be scrupulously honest about whether you need this particular level of disconnection. What I mean is that when someone gets used to living disconnected, she then learns to believe she needs that level of disconnection in order to be safe. It's a bit like layers of clothing. If it's a sunny, warmish day, you don't need 7 layers of sweatshirt and a jacket and a windbreaker. You may only need a t-shirt. But if you believe you need that huge level of protection (because you're used to it) you'll put on the 10 layers without even asking about the reality of the weather outside. This idea of beginning to ask yourself consciously, "ok, how many layers of clothing do I truly need right this moment?" and honestly listening to the answer, is a major way I help people work on dissociation.

Fourth, connection is the antidote to disconnection (genius statement, right?? :) So, the more you can promote connection, with others and the world and nature and God/religion/spirituality/whatever's your gig about this and animals... regardless of what level of disconnection you are at, the more the dissociation will lessen. Note: the more disconnected you are, the harder it will be to promote connection. Do not think this is because you are stupid. You are not. It is because the more disconnected we are from ourselves, the harder it is to even realize we need and want connection.

Ann, this is a Cliff Note version (yeah, yeah, Spark notes, for you younger people out there...) of an answer for you. Please ask more questions if I didn't give enough information or it doesn't make sense. Also, others of you guys can ask questions about this, of course, and you may be able to offer some advice to Ann also!

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