Dissociation is when the brain ‘disconnects’ from what is happening. It goes somewhere safe.
Other words for this include ‘switching off’ or ‘spacing out’.
Everyone does this at times. A common example is driving somewhere familiar and then realising that you cannot remember
parts of the journey.
Sometimes it is a defence mechanism which helps people survive traumatic events – by cutting off from what is actually happening.
Dissociation can be very helpful for protecting people when something out of the ordinary happens such as a car crash or the
sudden death of someone close. People do not choose to dissociate – it usually happens automatically.
There are different forms of dissociation ranging from mild to severe. Dissociation is a natural response to the trauma of sexual violence.
How does dissociation affect survivors of sexual violence?
Children who are sexually abused may learn to dissociate as a way of coping with the abuse. When abuse happens over a period of time, the perpetrators often expect children to carry on with everyday life, such as going to school, and to behave as if nothing has happened. Dissociation may be a way to block out the abuse when it is happening, as well as to cope with daily life.
Sexual violence can occur over a long period and so the brain can develop a habit of dissociating in any stressful situation. When this happens, it can cause problems, including:
- Not being able to remember things
- Memories being confused or with gaps
- Not being able to concentrate or keep appointments
- Switching off
- Appearing distant and disinterested
It can be unsettling if you experience dissociation frequently and if, for example, you do not remember why you are in a certain
place or doing a certain thing. It may develop into very severe difficulties – or ‘dissociative disorders’.
Not being able to remember what happened when abused may mean that you are not able to tell yourself or others about it. This can affect the way others understand your experience. For example, many survivors have not felt believed by the police or by people they turn to for support. This can affect self-esteem and self-belief.
Being unable to remember everything or the exact order in which it happened does not mean that your experience is any less valid. Making sense of what happened, how you feel and sometimes living with uncertainty can also be part of the healing process.
With support, many survivors find that they are able to know more clearly what happened.
What you can do: self-care tips for survivors
There are things you can do to manage dissociation. Survivors have found the following helpful:
- Keeping a diary can help you see more clearly what is going on and when. You may be able to spot triggers and patterns.
- ‘Grounding’ techniques can help you stay in the present and help you cope with dificult feelings, memories and thoughts. For example:
- Take a look around and note what is happening. What can you see and hear? Tell yourself your name and the date and time. You could keep an elastic band on your wrist and ‘ping it’ to bring yourself back to the here and now. Or, you could carry a pebble, a hankie or key-ring in your pocket which you can hold or rub when you feel yourself switching off.
- Focus on your breathing. It will help your body to relax naturally. Breathe in deeply, in for a count of 5 and out for a count of 5. Put your hand on your tummy and watch this rise and fall as you breathe.
- Think of some words which are personal and positive and repeat them to yourself. Try speaking in a comforting tone. Picture something that makes you feel happy and safe. Try to visualise being calm and relaxed when you are dealing with difficult situations.
- Practising ‘mindfulness’ techniques to get away from being on ‘automatic pilot’ and bringing your attention to the here and now. This means noting the things that you might not usually notice about yourself or your surroundings. If your mind drifts off when you do this, try to bring it back and keep practising. For example:
- When you are out for a walk notice what your arms and legs, hands and feet are doing, notice your breathing, hear, see and smell what is around you.
- When you are washing the dishes, notice the temperature of the water, the feeling of the water on your skin, the bubbles, the sounds of the plates.
- Finding practical ways of coping with everyday challenges. If you lose track of time because you dissociate, wear a watch or make sure the screen of your mobile has the date and time.
- Sharing experiences with others who have the same issues can be helpful. We can help you find out if there are any such support groups near you.
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