When the mind is under a great deal of stress and/or anxiety, it’s possible to experience what is known as a “dissociative episode,” and it is one of the possible symptoms of someone suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder and other mental health issues.
It’s been a while since I have had an episode of dissociation, but since recently committing to a trauma recovery group that starts next week (I wrote about that decision here), I’ve noticed that fragments of my experiences from the past that I am going to work on in the group have resurfaced. I realize that my willingness to go to an exposure therapy group to face things that I have long wanted to forget and pretend never happened has been a bit of an invitation for these somewhat suppressed memories to emerge for healing. That makes it a little easier to bear.
There are times, though, when my brain decides that the content is simply too much, and I experience dissociation. Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences.
You may be cooking and then suddenly feel “freaked out,” because you see your hand moving the spatula and sauteing the mushrooms, but you don’t feel as if it is you that is doing it. You feel as if you are observing someone else, or as if you are having an “out of body” experience. Or, you may be in the shower and then suddenly realize that you are going through the motions of washing your hair, but again, you feel as if this experience is happening to you or you are witnessing it rather than actually doing the actions.
Everyone dissociates pretty much on a daily basis, whether they have mental health issues or not. Driving home on autopilot is an example. Daydreaming is another. For those with BPD and/or PTSD, the experience is a bit more severe. It often lasts longer and can be quite frightening for the person experiencing it.
So, what can you do to help yourself when you notice you’ve been dissociating? Step one is in the question.
1.) Once you become aware that you have been dissociating, you have once again become mindful, present, and in the moment. Even though this awareness can be fleeting during an episode, do notice it, and allow it to ground you for as long as it lasts.
2.) During moments of mindfulness, remind yourself of where you are in time and space. For example, “It is Monday, August 26, 2013, and I am in the bathroom. I feel the hot water coming out of the shower and onto my skin.” You may feel anxious as you find it hard to reconcile reality with the odd feelings you are having, but try to remind yourself that you are likely experiencing anxious symptoms on top of everything else, and you must do what you can to calm your nervous system and bring down your anxiety.
3.) In moments of mindfulness, remind yourself of a very powerful truth: “This too shall pass.” No dissociative episode, mood, or feeling can last forever. It will pass. You will feel normal again. Allow yourself to ride this out, knowing you are going to be okay.
4.) Remind yourself that you are safe in this moment. Do something to feel grounded. Find an object like a rock, a pen, a stuffed animal, or an article of clothing. Hold it in your hands. Describe the texture, color, patterns, and anything else you can notice about this action. This helps bring you back into your body and back into the present moment.
5.) Once the episode passes, do something to distract (such as engage in a challenging puzzle, listen to a non-triggering topic on Talk Radio), or self-soothing (put on a lotion with a scent that comforts you, get a massage or give yourself a foot massage, eat a small piece of chocolate) and treat yourself with extra kindness.
6.) Try not to judge yourself or get too upset about the fact that you have had or have been having episodes. Remind yourself of how incredibly intelligent the human brain is, and that sometimes it reacts in very basic, hard-wired ways to protect us. It means well. It’s trying to protect us from overwhelm.
Be sure to talk with your doctor if you are having episodes to come up with ideas on how to take even better care of yourself to help you through these times.
As I begin the trauma recovery group next week, I’m sure I’ll learn a lot more skills to help myself and you, so be sure to check back.
Thanks for reading.
Click the image to watch the new documentary “Border _” : a compassionate film on Borderline Personality Disorder.