I was at a Somatic Experiencing (SE) training course recently. I like to go to these to keep my skills up to date, but what happened on this day was not what I was expecting would come up for me at the time!
I went through a particularly deep somatic dissociation, which I’ll describe in this post, where I lost all feeling in my left arm. I’ll share with you how I worked to release the emotions and memories trapped there; ultimately and thankfully regaining sensation. and most importantly, I’ll also outline some grounding techniques and practical resources that YOU can use at home or on the go, if you should find yourself in the midst of a dissociative response.
But first, let’s understand what dissociation actually is…
Have you ever driven home and realized you have absolutely no idea how you got there?
Or perhaps you’ve been so engrossed in a book that you lost all track of time? If so, it’s likely that you were experiencing a very mild form of dissociation.
That dazed, fuzzy feeling of losing touch with your thoughts, feelings or actions is extremely common amongst trauma survivors, but not in a good way, and not in a way where we can quickly snap back to reality.
When faced with the overwhelm of a traumatic event or experience, the body does whatever it can in order to survive.
This is true whether the event is a car accident, sudden loss of a loved one, injury, illness, rape or sexual abuse. In basic terms, trauma can be defined as a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. It is usually combined with feelings of helplessness, fear and inescapability.
When fight or flight responses are not possible (usually because our nervous system deems these responses unsafe, such as during a highway collision), the body resorts to freeze. Linked to that freeze state is Dissociation. Generally speaking, dissociation represents the state of a person’s perception when they’re in the state of freeze.
As a coach, specializing in Trauma Healing, I see this dissociative, freeze response very frequently with my clients. But you’re probably wondering how you might be able to recognize it, either in yourself or in a loved-one?
Characteristics of dissociation…
Dissociation is often characterized by a glazed expression, glassy eyes, confusion, lapses in time – where time seems to either speed up or slow down.
Memory loss or periods of amnesia are also common, as is a person’s feeling of un-reality and a sense of distance or detachment from themselves, their identity and their surroundings.
Frequent examples of this are when a person reports watching themselves and their mangled car flip in slow-motion from up-above the accident scene, or a person telling me that they witnessed their rape as if it were ‘happening to someone else’.
In his book ‘The Body Bears the Burden’, Dr Robert Scaer gives a very clear example of somatic dissociation when he writes about a client who had been in a motor vehicle accident (MVA). She had suffered damage to the vision in her right eye. Since her accident two months prior, the woman had experienced persistent blurred vision. During her accident he reports that she had:
“lost control of her car on an icy mountain road, and as the car spun out of control, it slid off the right side of the road, into a shallow ditch. On the other side of the ditch was a cliff. As she watched the edge of the cliff approaching from her right side (perceived in slow motion…), her car was stopped by impacting a tree, and came to rest.”
The woman was treated for her vision impairment. Scaer reports that within minutes of putting on the glasses with new lenses his client developed nausea, heart palpations, panic and flashback memories of the accident.
In this case, the threat to the woman’s life (the approaching cliff) was on her right side. Her right eye had experienced a somatic dissociative response resulting in blurred vision. This blurring was her body’s way of protecting her from the terrifying, overwhelming and inescapable threat coming towards her. The blurring was effectively blocking or distancing her from the flashbacks, emotions and physiological responses to her trauma.
In order to heal our trauma however, we cannot stay in a dissociated state long-term. In a dissociated state, we are essentially living with huge amounts of charged, unresolved feelings, emotions, memories and bound or pent-up survival energy in our body. Eventually this takes its toll on the body and can result in chronic pain and illnesses.
So, what can we do instead? How do we go about recognizing that we’re dissociating in the first place and then what steps can we take to safely come out of dissociation? As you’ll see from my story below, dissociation can creep up on us and catch us off-guard. It can happen suddenly or more slowly. The trick is to notice the coming and going states and to take steps to ground yourself along the way.
How I lost all feeling in my left arm…
I’m never very keen on people with clipboards taking notes on (what feels like) my performance at training events, but it’s an inevitable part of the day.
This particular day had been very long. Many people were coming down with winter colds and it was snowing heavily outside. We had been told we might need to end the day early because blizzard conditions were expected later that evening.
As we settled in to our triad group-work, one of my colleagues was complaining of laryngitis. She was barely able to talk above a whisper, was feeling very grumpy and short-tempered and was finally sent home to get some rest.
So, for my practice session as ‘client’, this left just myself, the trainer (complete with clipboard and pen at the ready!) and my ‘therapist’.
My therapist began the session by sitting down with a loud exhaling-snort complete with eye-roll ‘oh my god, do we have to do this now?! Can’t we just go home already?’ I bristled and recoiled immediately. My shocked response was – ’Wow! Lucky me! I can’t wait to be your client right now’.
I’m not usually one for conflict or confrontation, but this opening seemed just a little unprofessional and triggered some big emotions in me. I had planned to work on some small, innocuous childhood event during the practice session, but that went out the window and what we worked on instead was a memory I had long-since forgotten.
We began by noticing that because of this exchange, I was feeling very hot and flushed in the face. I felt hugely embarrassed, panicky, exposed and vulnerable. I had clearly been triggered by my ‘therapist’s’ clumsy words. I told her that I did not feel safe to open up to her. We hung out with that for a few minutes (as you do in practice sessions), and decided that we could continue to explore what was happening with my body and nervous system.
As we tracked the feelings of embarrassment, panic and anger in my chest, what became very strong was the idea of not feeling safe in my body or in my environment. As I acknowledged this, my left shoulder began to throb. The left side of my neck beginning under my earlobe and running all the way down to my collarbone had a strong searing-sharp pain.
Aware that my head was beginning to feel fuzzy, I found myself trying to shake my head and laugh off the physical discomfort. I took a moment to notice my feet on the ground beneath me and to gently lift and press my toes into the ground one foot at a time in a kind of pedaling motion. Feeling a little more ‘here’ and present, I took some deep diaphragmatic breaths before checking back in with my shoulder.
What I found was that the pain was now spreading down the entire length of my arm. As it spread, my whole left arm tingled for a few moments and then became completely numb. My arm became frozen and rigid and very cold to the touch. The fingers on my left hand were white and blanched further to the touch. My right hand by contrast was warm and pink. This is an example of partial somatic or body dissociation, where a single limb or body part is affected instead of the whole organism.
As I looked at my left arm, I noticed a strange feeling of distance from it. Like it didn’t belong to me. It felt detached, cut off and very far away. I felt cold and detached from my arm emotionally too. Numb to what it might be experiencing or why. I decided at this point to pick up my left arm with my right and cradle it gently against my stomach. It felt somehow like my arm was being held in a sling.
Beginning to feel all the feelings kept at bay by the dissociation…
As I continued to cradle my arm, the soothing self-touch began to shift something in me and my awareness. I got a sudden woosh of emotion throughout my torso. My arm remained immobilized, but I suddenly felt huge waves of emotional pain, shame, embarrassment and the feeling of desperately wanting to escape or run away.
I felt all this in my chest, my heart and in my arm. I was engulfed by a quick succession of images of being outside near trees at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, surrounded by a gang of bullies a year or so older than me. For the first time in decades, I remembered being shoved to the ground by these bullies, falling hard and dislocating my left shoulder. The physical pain was scorching, but to me sitting in this simulated SE session, the emotional pain was far greater. Through my tears, the words ‘what do I do, what do I do’ kept racing through my mind.
Back then, when I was still just a little girl of 8 or 9 I hadn’t known what to do. I felt trapped and very, very scared. I was outnumbered and I was hurt. All I could come up with was ‘I’ll never let them see my cry, I’ll hold it all inside’. And so, I had squished down all the emotional pain of the event.
Growing up, there was no supportive adult at home whom I could tell that might listen to me, believe me or help me process what had happened. Let alone protect me from further incidents and so I handled it the only way I knew – alone. The feelings of grief and a lack of support were intense. As I gently squeezed the length of my left arm, I felt intermingled waves of sadness, grief and compassion for that little girl and the pain both physical and emotional that she had experienced. I felt her feelings of unworthiness of love and support, care and attention.
I wondered, as I sat patiently with my motionless arm, can I give the things I didn’t get back then to myself today? I asked my arm – ‘what do you need today to heal this?’ My arm’s response surprised me. I had the thoughts, ‘I want to take up space. I want to deserve to exist and be seen as me without fear or consequence. I want to feel worthy of love and care’.
Little by little, as I acknowledged what my arm needed and all the big emotions of grief, pain, shame, embarrassment my arm began in tiny increments to tingle and defrost. I had not cried back then, it had felt like my only defense to squelch my emotions, but I cried now. Letting out all the emotions trapped in my arm, frozen at the time of that horrible incident.
At 8 or 9 years old, I had not been able to successfully complete the flight response. I had felt a strong urge to run away, but too outnumbered and too filled with fear, I had frozen and dissociated instead. Our nervous systems are incredibly intelligent and, based on the circumstances where neither fight nor flight were an option, freeze and dissociation was my body’s best chance at survival.
Now, today however, in the middle of this practice SE session, I imagined my little-girl-self standing back up tall after being shoved to the ground. I saw her brush herself down, take a deep breath and courageously push past the bullies and walk away with head-held-high down the street to safety. Giving my body the opportunity to complete what it never got a chance to do in the moment is not about re-writing history. It allows the nervous system to discharge bound or pent-up survival energy so that we can return to a more whole sense of self.
I had not anticipated doing such an important piece of healing work that day. I didn’t even remember that that event had happened to me as a child prior to working on it. But just in the same way as the woman’s blurred vision had protected her from all the painful, overwhelming emotions surrounding the possibility of plunging off a cliff to her death, my arm’s somatic dissociation was protecting or shielding me from feeling all the fear, shame, grief and abandonment as a child.
As I gradually felt, acknowledged and processed these emotions, the freeze response and somatic dissociation in my arm lessened. After about an hour it felt completely normal again. The next morning I woke feeling like I’d bench-pressed some heavy weights, but otherwise, there were no lasting physical symptoms.
So how might you work with your own dissociation?
Step # 1: Learning to recognize out own patterns of dissociation
You remember how I noticed my head starting to feel fuzzy? And how I felt like my arm did not belong to me? These were signs that I was dissociating.
Take a moment to think about what you do when you get triggered by something. Do you get sleepy? Do you yawn lots and zone – out of conversations? Do you stop breathing or only take really shallow breaths? Do you feel like you’re gliding through the day on auto-pilot? Does time slow down or do you have lapses in time or memory? Do you feel like a by-stander in your own life? Take a few moments to consider this and to get familiar with your specific ways of ‘checking-out’.
When you’ve come up with a few ways that you typically dissociate, you can begin to notice specific times of day or specific situations or triggers that may make this more likely to happen.
For example, is it always around a specific holiday? Or when you have to give a presentation in a meeting at work? Or when you have to see a particular relative? Your answers will give you important clues about what is causing you to dissociate.
STEP # 2: Grounding Techniques
To begin with, please practice these grounding techniques when you ARE NOT dissociating. This way when you are dissociating, you will stand more chance of remembering and using these resources.
A great way to ground yourself, is to use the 5 senses to help bring you back in to your body and into the present moment. As you become familiar with working with each of your senses, you will most likely find that one or two work best for you. This is very normal If any sense does not feel good or safe to you, simply move on to the next one.
Feel your back against the chair you’re sitting in. Notice how it supports your back, your seat and your legs. Notice your feet on the floor. Do they feel heavy? Solid? Very slowly push one foot into the ground and release. Repeat this with your other foot and repeat.
Gently pat both of your arms as if you’re giving yourself a hug. Move on to pat your legs, head, face and anywhere else that reminds you that you have and are in a physical body. Notice one place in your body that feels the most centered, present or good (it could be as small as your pinkie finger or as big as your whole torso). Let your attention rest there for a few moments. Allow yourself to rest in the good feelings of that body part
Look around you. Notice something about the room you’re in that is pleasing to your eye. Let your eyes rest there. (You can do this outside also.) Notice how looking at something pleasing to your eye makes you feel inside your body. You can look for 5 blue things, or 3 red things for example. Move your head very slowly from side to side as you orient yourself to where you are. This will help to bring you back to the here and now.
You can burn a candle or incense with a fragrance that you like. Cut a lemon and inhale the fresh citrus scent deeply. Think of a pleasing smell to you (fresh cut grass or vanilla ice cream for example). Notice how your body responds as you think about or actually smell those things.
Hold an ice cube in your mouth, or suck on a slice of lemon or lime. The tart taste can help bring you to the present moment.
Play some music that you like. Listen to the clock ticking in your kitchen, Listen to the birds singing outside your window or the sound of your cat purring on the sofa. Listen to you sound of the lawn being mown or kids playing outside. Whatever is a positive or pleasing sound for you, you can try.
For me and for my clients, grounding is the number one tool that I use when working with dissociative responses. As you’ve seen here, you can use these grounding techniques as a resource to help you if you find yourself dissociating. I
If you’ve experienced trauma and dissociation and you would like support on your healing journey, please reach out. I’m here for you.