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Fri, March 1, 2013
Exploring Body Dissociation
In psychology and psychiatry, the term ‘dissociation’ is seen as a detachment of the mind from the emotional state of the body. In a recent article for Psychology Today entitled The Embodied Mind, neuroscientist Dr. John Montgomery (2012) states “It seems that we can never race away in our thoughts without taking the body with us – because our bodies are, in effect, always part of our thoughts. But we can certainly become, to varying degrees, ‘disconnected’ from, or consciously unaware of, our bodies.”

The Spectrum of Dissociation

The spectrum of body dissociation is long and complex. If you have ever found yourself daydreaming or operating on auto-pilot, you may have experienced a dissociative moment. Moments like these are common and part of everyday life, especially when lack of sleep or monotony is involved. For some, feelings of dissociation can also happen during meditation. Some describe this experience as feeling as if their mind is on vacation.

On the other end of the continuum is body dissociation as a survival mechanism. In this case, such dissociation from the body occurs most commonly following trauma, such as sexual abuse or a traumatic birth. In the context of repetitive trauma, the act of dissociating is the body and the psyche’s way of coping and adapting in order to reduce the overwhelming distress caused by re-living the event. Body dissociation as a survival mechanism is a strong feeling of detachment from the body, and is often described as a feeling of emotional numbness or feeling as if the body is simply a shell.

Signs of Body Dissociation

Body dissociation is most often a result of trauma, particularly in early childhood. Below are some of the symptoms but working with a trained professional is key in order to obtain a diagnosis of your particular concerns or conditions. Here are some common symptoms of individuals with body dissociation:
  1. Feeling emotionally “checked out”, particularly in response to current traumatic or stressful situations.
  2. Feeling separate from your body, removed from your body emotionally or even spatially in your mind.
  3. Experiencing extended periods of time “spacing out”.
  4. Extreme sensitivity to intense feelings or an innate even subconscious effort to avoid feelings or feel “numbed out”.
  5. Addictive or compulsive tendencies or excessiveness (which assists the individual in “numbing out”).
  6. Extreme or excessive behaviors and attitudes of self-criticism and self-blame.
  7. Black and white thinking – the all or nothing, good or bad approach, very little middle ground.
  8. Inappropriate attachments to others, often prevalent with dysfunctional patterns and emotional behaviors.
  9. Chronic or extreme adversity to conflict
  10. Chronic or extreme anxiety, possibly even panic disorders
  11. Self-harm or self-mutilation practices and behaviors
  12. Intense fears
From a psychological perspective, those with body dissociation often feel subconsciously fearful that there is a danger in the present moment. While the body is actually present, in order to provide some sense of protection for themselves, they habitually learn to distance their minds and psyche in order to provide a buffer, giving the illusion of a greater sense of safety.

This coping mechanism is adopted most often in early childhood subconsciously by the individual and, as with any other coping tool, becomes an unconscious pattern that is repeated throughout life to provide protection, safety, and a greater sense of comfort. While the perceived “distance” created by the individual does enable him/her to feel more safe and secure, the practice often leads to a variety of complications and challenges as they mature in life.

Adults with body dissociation can have challenges with relationships and boundaries, as well as communication and self-care practices. In some cases, there is even a sense of betrayal and discord within the person as they struggle with the part of themselves that wants to be present and try to reconcile the part of themselves that does not feel safe.

If you are concerned that a loved one may have body dissociation, you may notice an often vacant look in their eyes, a sense of emotional detachment or over-attachment, or may even feel that you have a hard time getting through to them.

Seeking Help

While disconnecting from one’s body may lessen emotional pain temporarily, long-term consequences can include depression, anxiety, increased risk for suicide and self-injurious behaviors, substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, and an inability to form meaningful relationships. If you find yourself struggling with feeling emotionally or physically disconnected and it is preventing you from thriving in your day-to-day life, it may be time to seek help.

The tricky part about treating body dissociation is that it may be difficult for some people to notice that they are dissociating in the first place. If you suspect that you may be experiencing body dissociation, gaining awareness is a great first step. This can be accomplished by researching dissociation further, journaling, and getting to know your unique triggers. A mental health professional can also help you to recognize the signs of dissociation and aid you in re-connecting with your body in a safe and controlled environment. 

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