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Well-Being

Dissociation – causes and mechanisms

Disclaimer: this is not meant as a substitute for expert advice, and help from a professional is the safest way to find answers for your concerns.

Trigger warning: reference to trauma and abuse.

Causes of dissociation

It is the widely held belief that dissociation is caused by significant trauma. Now, what is significant can vary from person to person. Contrary to common held belief there is no universal yard stick for what is and is not a traumatic experience.

A lot of research has gone into understanding trauma, but efforts on defining what constitutes a traumatic event has been ultimately abandoned. Commonalities of traumatic events such as hostility and threat are accepted but a more nuanced understanding recognises that what constitutes a trauma is an individual matter.

Many like to view trauma as an external matter, what has happened to you. It is more accurate to view trauma as internal, what you felt as events took place. This understanding far better explains the apparent variation in trauma responses from person to person.

What traumatizes one person may not traumatize another, even if the event or events they experienced were the same or similar. A multitude of personal and situational factors influence an individual’s relationship to a potentially traumatic event.

With such variation it stands to reason why there are so many disorders associated with dissociation and trauma. For many individuals, dissociation is the brains attempt and protecting you. But how does this occur?

Mechanisms of dissociation

It is commonly understood that dissociation occurs more frequently in people that have a pre-existing inclination to imagine. Yes, to imagine or day dream allows us to exist in alternate realities. Linking back to the first article in this series, many of us dissociate when we watch TV or a movie. We become emotionally engaged and moved by what we are viewing even though we know it to be fictional or staged.

This ability for dissociative states to elicit emotion is also seen in reverse. Individuals with the ability to imagine that find themselves in hostile or unsafe environments can subconsciously or consciously escape from this unpleasant environment by way of their imagination.

Escaping an environment by way of dissociation is frequently seen in children from abusive homes. Like we can escape to a dissociative state of joy or sadness when we watch TV we can also escape negative emotions in our real environment and ‘switch’ to a safer imagined or dissociated environment to protect ourselves when we become overwhelmed. This explanation is used to justify why dissociation occur in adults.

A defence mechanism out of control

Dissociation offers us an escape from negative emotions we cannot do anything about. As children have little autonomy or power in our society it is theorized dissociation is frequently used as an escape because they have no tangible control to remove themselves from the environment.

This route of escape can become a learned behaviour. Meaning that adults can experience dissociation when they become overwhelmed. This can explain why people often experience dissociation as part of an anxiety or depressive disorder. The extreme emotions are too much to handle and the brain switches to a dissociative state as a form of protection.

Issues occur as dissociation is in essence avoidance of the consciousness, making it very hard to function while dissociated. Deficits in memory, knowledge, attention and perception are all altered during dissociative states, making it hard to meet any of the demands of every day life. Not to mention, the experience of dissociation can be unnerving.

For many people, their trauma or previous dissociative experiences may be alien to them, pushed to the back of their mind in a dissociative haze. Meaning that each and every time can feel as unfamiliar and bizarre as the first. Unsurprisingly this can provoke anxiety in people, which can further drive them onto a path of dissociation as they question what is wrong and why their thoughts feel so alien to them.

For people experiencing dissociation there are tips and techniques to help manage the experience. These techniques may not 100% remove you from the dissociative state, but they can provide a sense of routine and control for those of us that struggle with the uncontrollable nature of dissociation.

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Well-Being

Going back to normal – tips for social anxiety

For many of us the return to normality is an exciting prospect, but it also conjures up a mix of emotions. For many of us, lockdown has felt like an unending slog – nothing to do nothing to say.

The opportunity to go back to the pub, to wine and dine with our friends is an exciting prospect. But for many of us, while lockdown has been isolating and depressing, it has also offered us the opportunity to indulge the avoidance side of our anxiety.

Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

For those with social anxiety there is a constant nagging desire to avoid situations that provoke our anxieties. Whether it be showing up to lectures, public speaking or something entirely different we always want to avoid the things that stress us out. Lockdown posed a unique situation in which we suddenly had all our triggers removed.

For a year now we’ve lived without the worries of our day to day life intruding as it used to. Yet now, with the UK opening back up many of us are facing a sudden and potentially uncomfortable reintroduction to life as it was before.

If you share this preoccupation with the anxiety of returning to life as we know it here are a few tips for if your anxieties makes an appearance.

1. Breathe

I always hate to see this ‘tip’, as it always seems like the most obvious thing. Mental health staff and resources love to say ‘take long deep breaths’ when you feel anxious. This may help. But what’s better is to focus on maintaining a full and relaxed cycle of breathing to reduce chances of anxiety taking hold.

2. Grounding techniques

If you feel your anxiety building up, try and engage in grounding techniques. Grounding refers to techniques you can use to distract yourself from your anxieties and prevent the cycle from reaching a full blown panic attack.

The details on grounding techniques can be found here. You can try apps for grounding or even name things you can see in the room. The point of these exercises are to show you that you can choose to divorce yourself from the wave of anxiety and focus on something else. Repeated use of these techniques can help ‘prove’ this to yourself and thus improve its effectiveness.

3. Tell a friend

If you’re going out with friends, talk to them about how you feel. If something in particular is worrying you about your plans, tell them if you can.

When I was anxious I would feel incredibly nauseous and developed a phobia of being sick in public. Naturally whenever I went somewhere it was the only thing on my mind, making the symptoms even worse.

Speaking to a friend made me relax, knowing they knew what was going on and that they understood if I needed to step outside or leave helped relieve my anxieties.

Which leads me onto the fourth tip.

4. Plan your escape route

It may sound dramatic, but often just knowing how to escape a stressful situation can make it more barrable.

When I felt anxious in lectures, I often got caught up in worries about how to leave without people noticing. This obsession of course led me straight to feeling anxious.

However, if you have a way of getting out of the situation that you have rationalised and know is safe, it can act as a comfort. I tried letting my lecturers know I may need to step out on occasions.

This can act as a comfort blanket, resulting in a reduction in overall anxiety.

5. Don’t go into situations expectant

In my experience, I often felt anxious when I went into a situation with high expectations and a high desire to control things.

In my head things ‘had’ to go to plan, i.e., I shouldn’t feel anxious and if I did that was the worst thing ever.

What’s more, I would go into situations telling myself I ‘had’ to be the most confident or sociable I could be, and if I didn’t live up to this I had failed.

The desire for control set me up to fail each time. Wanting to control everything and live up to my own standards made me hyper aware of how I wasn’t living up to these standards. Making me anxious about being anxious.

It’s better to be realistic. Socializing is not life or death. You can leave if you feel anxious, you do not need to live up to any standards – socializing is meant to be fun.

Paradoxical as it may sound, try to go into situations acceptant that things may not go to plan and they may go even better than if you try to make everything go perfectly to your pre-imagined idea of how it ‘should’ go.

Take it easy

Most importantly, try to enjoy this new freedom. Try not to be tough on yourself.

Rather than focusing on what you ‘should’ or ‘must’ do, try to think in terms of what you would like or prefer.

For more tips, look no further!

Categories
Well-Being

Pandemic Fatigue

Nothing to do, nothing to say – advice for maintaining relationships online

If you’re anything like me, you’re still in shock that you’re living amidst a pandemic. This is the sort of thing you might watch a movie about, probably not a great movie but one you could throw on when you have friends over. But to live it each day, it’s a lot more…meh…than I would have imagined.

Don’t get me wrong multiple parts of the pandemic are truly awful, and it’s been a rough ride for many of us, particularly for those who have lost loved ones or faced eviction from their homes. To all of which I offer my sincere sympathies. Yet, a certain aspect of the pandemic that is perhaps more trivial has really caught my eye.

The beginning of the pandemic saw a huge uptake in video calls. Of course, we all were aware of Facetime and Skype and for those of us in my school year I’m sure you remember such classics as MSN video chat. Yet suddenly, about a week into lockdown everyone and their dog were on group zoom calls making efforts to get in contact with everyone they knew amidst the panic of the first lockdown and the solitude it would impose on so many of us. But that was then, now it seems we’ve moved into another phase of the pandemic. No more zoom quizzes and family get togethers posted all over people’s stories, no, in this phase we have entered a form of social etiquette seen between an infant and caregiver.

Photo by KoolShooters from Pexels

Mutual reciprocity – late-stage pandemic etiquette

Has anyone else noticed they’ve gone from contacting their friends and family frequently to now barely speaking. Maybe you have some empty chit chat throughout the day with a close friend but generally, its an empty void. Nothing to do, nothing to say. Conversations are repetitive and dry. One rule has emerged, conversations about the pandemic are off limits. I’m terming this ‘pandemic fatigue’. After a year since the first UK lockdown, it seems nobody wants to talk about it anymore. But how do you know when is safe to discuss it and when are your nearest and dearest not in the mood?

This new relationship between one and their social circle has become oddly similar to that of ‘mutual reciprocity’. Renowned researcher in developmental Psychology John Bowlby put forward the case for this reciprocity as a core mutual interaction that occurs between infants and mothers. What this concept suggests is that a mother – or more appropriately – a caregiver enter into states of reciprocity with their child. This can be initiated by either infant or caregiver and during these stages learning and bonding occurs via facial expressions and mimicry of one another. Surely, we’ve all seen it, a baby smiles at you and you smile back and suddenly you’ve been fawning over this baby for 15 minutes. The key link to socializing in month 12 of the pandemic is the momentary and fleeting nature of these interactions and there almost spontaneous occurrence. For those of us experiencing a complete lack of social skills, spotting when is the right and wrong moment to try and discuss the P-word can prove tricky.

Dealing with ‘pandemic reciprocity’ – tips for going it alone

During moments of ‘pandemic reciprocity’ your stars align, and you and your co-conversationalist find yourselves in the mood to talk about the dreaded pandemic. These times occur when one or more of you give the indication that you’d like to discuss it. After an undecided amount of time the conversation is signalled to be over by the presentation of the statement, ‘it’s fine, it’ll be alright eventually…’. At which point the reciprocal state is ended and conversation reverts back to the safe small talk and slow replies.

Now, these moments can be rewarding and fun but fundamentally they’re the exception and not the rule. The rest of the time, we can find ourselves either wanting more from our friends or our friends want more from us than we have the energy for. Below are some tips for coping, managing your expectations and enjoying these fleeting moments.

  1. Stay mindful – remember that you and your friends and family are likely on different schedules, with different needs weighing on them. You can’t always get the level of attention you crave at any time like you could pre-pandemic. It might suck but it’s an unfortunate fact of life. Try and remember this next time you don’t get the response you hoped for.
  • The same is true for yourself, don’t be hard on yourself when your friends want more than you can give. You’re allowed to be busy, you’re allowed to not be in the mood. You’re entitled to your own privacy and your own space.
  • Bring something to the table – It may feel somewhat false or rehearsed to plan ahead for a conversation with a friend but having something in mind can be helpful when living the same day over and over. Particularly, reminiscing on the ‘good times’ can have psychological benefits for the both of you. Try and focus on the good times you’ve had without being drawn toward the negative fact that you cannot meet up any longer.
  • Only good may enter – Try not to want too much from others. That may be hard, harder now than ever, but doing so can worsen your mood and day-to-day experiences. Reaching out to a friend can provide a warm nostalgic feeling, a comfort blanket of sorts. Yet, if they’re feeling particularly pandemic-fatigued or not in the mood, this feeling of dashed hopes for discussion or catch up can leave you feeling down. Do your best to reach out to your loved ones with a pinch of salt. If they’re not in the mood, don’t let it phase you. Treat it like water off a duck’s back. Prepare yourself for enjoyment with negative feelings of dejection or being let down wash away.
  • Be your own boss – This tip involves taking the place of the social bonds you’re missing. Many of us are missing the social contact we once took for granted, with many realising this contact tied into our very self-image and is integral to how we view ourselves. With this gone many are feeling at a loss, struggling to define themselves now they’re in almost complete isolation. If this sounds familiar, try to tackle this by taking the place that this social interaction once took. Ask yourself, what you think about certain things, and in time you’ll realise you still have all the opinions and feelings you always had. You do not need others to teach you who you are, you need only consult with yourself.
  • Manage expectations – A tricky one but this tip offers great benefits. Consider what it is you hope to gain from interactions with others. Is it realistic? Is it helpful? The pandemic has shaken things up, so perhaps take it as an opportunity to rethink your relationships with others. If you’re seeking approval from others, ask yourself why? You have the ability to be as independent and self-fulfilling as anyone else. Once you see you may be hoping for too much from others it may be time to look inside and consider what it is, you’re missing and what you can do to achieve this.
  • Journal or diary – Yes, I know you’re tired of being asked to start a diary. Wherever you look on the internet there’s always some tired blogger running on coffee alone telling the world they *need* to start a diary. Sadly, I am one of them – though I’m more of a green tea fan myself. A journal or diary can really help you keep track of what’s going on around you, it’s easy to feel cut off or almost floating in a void of nothing. A journal allows you to look back and look ahead, grounding you in reality. Think of it as an exercise in testing out these tips, record how they work out for you and see if you think they’d benefit you in the long term. Just give it a try!
Photo by Bich Tran from Pexels

Give these tips a try and see if they help you get more out of the limited interaction available this far into the pandemic.

Good luck out there!