Checking out and creating meaning: living with dissociation

January 19, 2021

Image by Christopher “Selomon” Closson from Pixabay

Grace Egan navigates through her struggles by using self-care and going outside her comfort zone

During this pandemic, there’s always a feeling of danger close by making me feel anxious. The coronavirus is a real threat, so you have to be cautious. But how can you be wary of something you can’t see? How do you get your head around this invisible hazard? That’s where dissociation can come in.

We all dissociate, little and often. Zoning out during conversations or not feeling exactly like yourself are minor dissociative tendencies that we all experience.

Dissociation can be different for everyone, but it’s generally feeling disconnected from your mind and body. It can be as if you are watching yourself in a movie or floating outside your body. It can also be subtler, like looking in the mirror and not recognising yourself.

There are a range of dissociative disorders that all involve slightly different feelings. Normally, these feelings are identified as depersonalisation, dissociation or derealisation.

Dissociation is a general feeling of disconnect or detachment. It doesn’t always have to be negative. It can be like when we ‘get lost’ in a really good book. Depersonalisation is specifically a sense of detachment from one’s self or identity. And derealisation is a feeling that your surroundings, other people or yourself are not real.

Dissociation is usually, although not always, a result of post-traumatic stress from abusive or traumatic experiences

Personally, it can be quite dramatic when I experience derealisation. Nothing feels real or important, because I don’t feel real or important. As you can imagine this has led to quite a lot of issues in my life, including missing out on chunks of education because I just couldn’t connect and, in turn, care.

For me, it came hand in hand with my depression and anxiety; dissociation is another symptom I guess. I brought my concerns to my therapist but I didn’t feel it was taken as seriously as my depression; dissociation can be really frightening and extremely hard to cope with.

Dissociation is usually, although not always, a result of post-traumatic stress from abusive or traumatic experiences. It’s subconsciously used as a coping mechanism to avoid confronting painful memories.

When it interferes with a person’s everyday life to an extreme extent, it is called Depersonalisation Derealisation Disorder (DDD). The main treatment for DDD is talking therapy (psychotherapy) and sometimes medications are also prescribed (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, SSRIs).

A helpful way to relieve and soothe feelings of dissociation is to tap into creative energy

What I found helps, is surrounding myself with people that engage and energise me. Instead of living in my own box, I benefit from being pushed and excited and scared! My DDD can make it hard to feel passionate about anything, which can leave me lacking any sense of purpose in life. I have found myself thinking, what’s there to live for if I can’t look forward to anything?

So forcing myself out of the boundaries I was familiar with sparked the motivation I’d been missing. Joining a new school last year and becoming involved with new people induced a lot of stress but has pushed me out of my comfort zone and into caring.

A helpful way to relieve and soothe feelings of dissociation is to tap into creative energy. I do a lot of crafty activities, which I enjoy and they help to ground me. During the first lockdown in March I created and altered lots of pieces of clothing, I painted a wall in my room with a cow print design and re-decorated. I even painted my shoes. I highly recommend painting-by-numbers sheets; the repetitive creative motions make you feel calm.

Making music or listening to it, sketching, writing or dancing can also improve your wellbeing. I know people often suggest these outlets and it might seem meaningless and repetitive, but I urge you to at least try something out :). Being completely absorbed in the flow, or in the zone, can reduce anxiety, boost your mood, and even slow your heart rate.

If you have identified with anything I’ve talked about, please do feel free to check this link. It goes into deeper detail about ways to address the feelings I have described and where to go from here.

You are not alone!

Grace is studying English Literature, Psychology and Biology at A level. She is taking these subjects because she is passionate about both journalism and biopsychology. She is still unsure of what she will study after college, but she is a work in progress!

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