Your everyday, average Highly Sensitive Person (~ 30% of the world’s population) has perfected the art of dissociation. Dissociation is the subconscious practice, often learned in childhood, of leaving our body when our stress becomes unmanageable. It is a human safety mechanism unconsciously learned as a way of protecting oneself during times of distress, physical or emotional hardship, frightening situations, or extreme uncertainty.
I see it as a subconscious process of sending our soul somewhere safe, when this 3D world becomes too intense. Children trapped in abusive, traumatic situations send their psyches elsewhere when the only other option is to stay and quite possibly sustain permanent psychological injury. Dissociation is a survival tool.
But to the Highly Sensitive Person, severe trauma is not required to develop a dissociation pattern.
Trauma is subjective. And to a population of people whose nervous system works more intensely than 70% of the rest of the world’s, dissociation is a very real defense mechanism in a world designed for the less sensitive.
American Psychiatrist, Dr. Bruce Perry describes dissociation as such:
“…a dull, spacey mood of feeling completely numb, an experience known as a dissociative state. This comes from the stress response associated with surrender, the one that occurs when the body recognizes that escape is impossible and help won’t come. Here, heart rate and blood pressure are lowered, and the person withdraws within, becoming as physically distant and small as possible, shutting out the world. This state is originally a last-ditch attempt by the body to minimize injury–but it can recur later in nontraumatic situations that recall the original trauma in some way.”
(A dissociative state, as what I am referring to in this article, is not to be confused with any of the four types of clinical Dissociative Disorders. With one of those types, Dissociative Identity Disorder, a person’s psyche fragments into multiple distinct identities, something that long ago was referred to as Multiple Personality Syndrome.)
Outside the realm of serious pathology, dissociative states are actually quite common.
In my worldview, we are spiritual beings having a physical experience on earth. Our spirit and soul can easily travel between the physical and etheric realms. So why not pull the escape hatch when life gets too intense? We all do it. The problem becomes when we’ve learned to do it so often, we have no idea we’re doing it again–leaving our bodies at the slightest provocation–essentially walking around in a half-present state.
I can tell immediately when somebody I’m interacting with is dissociated.
It’s like they’re with me, but they’re not really with me, you know? Their eyes are looking at me, but not truly seeing me. Their energy field is small and tight to their body; no movement is happening. They barely seem to breathe.
And I can tell when I, myself, have dissociated. I feel fragmented. Spacey. I can’t focus, and I don’t really feel connected to anything. I feel numb, rootless, shallow. My attention span becomes non-existent. And forget about making progress, or completing a project…that would require all of me.
Does any of this feel familiar?
Falling back on a dissociative state for me is not acceptable at this point in my evolution. I want to teach my soul and my psyche that I am safe in all circumstances; that I am here for me. Dissociation is a defense mechanism that equates to involuntarily abandoning ourselves and the people around us. I want to be present for this life, not drift through it like an untraceable specter. Resilience training helps us to stay rooted into our environment. Resilience teaches us to convert overwhelm to practical management.
Learning to stay in our bodies.
So to bring me back to wholeness, I intentionally ground.
Grounding is a self-regulation practice that is clinically proven to help you pull away from traumatic rumination, calm your nervous system, quiet feelings of overwhelm, and re-enter your body from a dissociated state. Grounding shifts your mindset from stuck to functional.
Grounding techniques are simple somatic exercises that are designed to help you refocus on the present moment to soothe anxious feelings, and to be there for yourself.
You can use grounding techniques to help create a sense of internal safety, providing distance from overwhelm in nearly any situation.
Grounding is especially helpful for shifting:
- emotional dysregulation
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Feelings are a Highly Sensitive Person’s gift when channeled through a foundation of resilience. But until we build that foundation, we take it step by step, and grounding is one of our greatest somatic tools for doing so.
Some examples of somatic grounding tools are:
- Take three deep breaths, while holding your hand to your heart and feeling your heartbeat.
- Take a short mindful walk focusing on your feet on the earth.
- Mindfulness meditation
- Hold your hands under running water.
- Track where your senses are in the moment. With every sense you have access to, notice what you’re experiencing.
- Take your own pulse, focusing on the cadence whatever it may be.
- Intention. Focus on what emotional state you would like to anchor into. See it. Feel it.
- Hold an ice cube. Move it from hand to hand.
- Take a sea salt bath with lavender essential oil.
- Do some gardening, or repot an interior plant that needs more space.
- Visualize your safe place.
- Focus on five small objects around you. Feel them; hold them in your hand. Study their detail.
- Drink hot tea, or hot water with lemon.
- Read a page in a book, or read a short article.
- Recite a mantra, a prayer, or a poem out loud.
- Feel your bare feet on the grass, stone, sand, or soil.
- Use a biofeedback tool.
- Go to your bookshelf and speak outloud every title in one row.
- Visualize what your anxiety or your distress would look like it it were an object or a symbol.
- Do simple math equations in your head.
Let me know in the comments below👇 if you yourself have direct experience with falling into dissociative states, and what never fails to ground you, if so. This summer my spur-of-the-moment grounding go-to’s have been dead-heading my flower garden, visiting mineral springs, mindfully cleaning the kitchen (cleaning the kitchen has always been relaxing to me!), organizing a closet, or art-journaling. And I can’t leave out my three beloved cats, Ghosti, Zem, and Anu! Animals are miraculously grounding, aren’t they?
Questions? I am happy to answer any you might have.