We’ve all experienced something painful in our lives. The ending of a relationship, the death of a loved one, an experience of failure…the list can go on and on. These painful events are often referred to as trauma, and they can lead us to feel, think, and behave differently.
One of the things that happens when we think of the traumatic event is that we might “zone out.” This “zoning out” is known as dissociation. Even though we may be physically present, our minds may be somewhere else. In other words, our mind will dissociate from our bodies.
For people with trauma, the experience of dissociation is quite common.
Trauma and Dissociation
Imagine you are mugged after walking down a particular street on a particular night. You never get to see your assailant’s face, but you can remember the colour of their hair, their height, and what they are wearing.
With trauma, even though the event may have occurred many months ago, you can still get re-traumatized by simply being exposed to anything that reminds you of the assault. For example, you may start to panic when you think of walking down that same street where you were mugged, and avoid it altogether. Or, you may feel your heart beat rapidly every time you see someone wearing the same kinds of clothes that your assailant wore.
Suddenly, you think back to that place and time, and dissociate from what you are doing in the present moment.
Strategies for Controlling Dissociation and “Zoning Out”
Here are some strategies you can use on yourself for coping with a painful memory, and for bringing you back to the present moment.
1. Breathe using the 4-4-4 technique. When we are stressed, anxious, and re-experiencing trauma, our breathing is the first thing to change. When this happens, inhale for four seconds, then hold it for four seconds, then exhale for four seconds (or longer). I find the key in this exercise is to hold your breathe. By slowing it down, you can actually bring yourself to a more normal state of functioning. Also, by focusing on your breath, you are able to get your mind off of the event – a key component for preventing dissociation.
2. Focus on what you can see, feel, and hear. As I mentioned, when we get traumatized, our minds go back to the painful memory, which is triggered by something in the current environment. So, even though we may be physically present, our minds will dissociate and go somewhere else. To help you regain focus and bring you back to the here-and-now, do this exercise:
- Say out loud 5 things you can see around you (e.g., “I can see a tree, I can see a car, I can see…”etc.)
- Say out loud 5 things you can feel (e.g., “I can feel my feet in my shoes, I can feel my glasses on my face, I can feel…” etc.)
- Say out loud 5 things you can hear (e.g., “I can hear a car outside, I can hear someone speaking, I can hear…” etc.)
By stimulating your sense of sight, touch, and hearing, you are forcing yourself to come back into the present.
3. Change the narrative of your story. When we tell someone the story of the painful event, we are tempted to replace certain details with other, sometimes less painful words. For example, we may say “the incident” instead of “the shooting.” Or, “he was really mean to me” instead of “he was physically abusive and did x, y, and z.” As you start to heal from the event, start being more specific about the details of the trauma. When you are able to do this, you are demonstrating control over the memory. This is also a sign that you are progressing in counselling.
Being and Feeling ‘Present’ Increases Self-Control
In the end, it’s important to remember that overcoming trauma is a difficult journey, but it is not impossible. Although we cannot change what has happened to us in the past, by using certain strategies, we can control how to deal with it in the present.
Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge, growth, and calm…
Links Related to This Post:
- Here’s a previous post on how ‘Changing Your Narrative’ is a sign you are ready to finish counselling
- Here’s a brief video on how to use other grounding techniques to reduce anxiety
- Here are some other signs of Trauma