Why Can't I Feel? Dissociation and Emotional Detachment in Response to Trauma

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Back in 2013, a film was released called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty which features Walter, an ordinary man who lived a fairly uneventful life but daydreamed about a fantastical, adventurous life to escape bullying by coworkers and unrequited love.  I loved how this film portrayed Walter’s tendency to do what his mother called “zoning out,” where he would engage in a fantasy that distracted him from the pain he experienced in his daily life.  Check out the clip below to see how this played out in his life.

For Walter, this daydreaming was a form of what we call dissociation.

What is dissociation?

Dissociation, or emotional detachment, is a defense mechanism used to cope with distressing or overwhelming emotions.  It involves disconnection between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.  Often it begins as avoidance of past memories of traumatic events or of negative emotions.  While all of us experience this emotional detachment from time to time (have you ever binge-watched an entire Netflix series without knowing where the time has gone?  Or zoned out on the highway and completely missed your exit?), dissociation is particularly common in survivors of trauma. 

With past experiences of abuse or trauma, dissociation serves as a survival tactic that keeps us from becoming overwhelmed by the pain or trauma we are experiencing.  Dissociation is particularly common with sexual abuse or assault, and it is associated with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  However, as we adopt these patterns of emotional detachment that were helpful in the past, they can become patterns we continue with later in life, putting us in constant survival mode.  Often dissociation is caused by parents who do not teach emotional regulation skills to their children, and therefore children don’t know how to cope with these emotions when they surface and are overwhelmed by them.

In extreme cases with severe trauma, dissociation can transform into a more serious psychological disorder.  However, most often the process of dissociation does not lead to this extreme.  In fact, most people emotionally detach from time to time, and it doesn’t turn into a more severe disorder.  However, it can impact struggles with depression or anxiety as numbness sets and in and replaces healthy experiences of emotion.

How do I know I’m dissociated?

It is incredibly easy to dissociate in our daily life.  We have so many opportunities to be entertained or distracted.  We “check out” and avoid because life is too painful or stressful.  This detachment can be functional and seem like it works to control emotions, but you might find that the dissociation eventually controls you.

Here are some indicators that you might be dissociated:

  • numbness

  • apathy

  • memory gaps

  • feeling of being outside of yourself, as an observer of your life

  • feeling disconnected from surroundings

  • “checking out” or drifting off

  • feeling as though the world around you is distorted or not real

  • avoiding or “stuffing” emotions

  • daydreaming

  • difficulty remembering events

How can I change dissociation in my life?

When you notice emotional detachment or dissociation in your life, there are several ways you can choose to re-center yourself and connect to those emotions that you find yourself avoiding.

Practice a grounding exercise.

The first step in getting in touch with your emotions involves slowing down your physiological reaction and paying attention to your body.  This can happen as you practice mindfulness and breathing exercises that allow you to observe the sensations you feel inside yourself.  A particular favorite of mine is the 5-4-3-2-1 senses exercise referenced in this article, which helps you connect with what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste right in front of you.

Remind yourself that you are safe in the present moment.

In the midst of these grounding exercises, emotions can arise that you didn’t know were there.  In those moments, you might find yourself triggered by a past memory or anxious about an upcoming event. Repeating key phrases during this grounding exercise like, “I am safe now.”  “I can handle what is coming in my life” or any other statement that helps you to feel peace can ease this pain. 

Pay attention to where emotions are centered in your body.

When you begin to identify the emotions that arise, notice where you can feel the sensation most clearly in your body.  Often, when I meet with children, I’ll have them color an outline of their body with colors that represent different emotions, in terms of where they feel that emotion most frequently in their body.  If you aren’t currently feeling any strong emotion, spend some time thinking of the major emotions (happy, sad, angry, afraid) and how you would describe their presence in your body in the past.

Keep an emotions journal.

Often we aren’t aware of our emotions because we are moving too quickly through life, or we’ve never taken the time to identify them.  Instead of rushing through your day without checking in with your emotions, spend a set time each day reflecting on your emotions and how they affect you.  Use a tool like this feelings wheel to answer the following questions:

  • What am I feeling right now?

  • How do I know I’m feeling that emotion?

  • Where does that emotion center in my body?

  • What triggered this feeling?

  • What do I want to do because I feel this way?

  • How do I wish I were feeling?

Look for patterns in your emotions and how you respond to them over time.  Notice if there are certain emotions that lead to dissociation.  Identify if there are times you felt that emotion in the past which may lead you to want to avoid it in the present day.

Self-soothe when you’re experiencing negative emotions.

Our emotions serve as a red flag indicating unmet needs or desires in our lives.  Use these indicators to consider the desires you’re feeling and seek to either care for those needs or self-soothe in ways that calm your emotions.  Feeling angry?  Take some time to exercise to release that pent-up energy.  Feeling sad? Practice good self-care by taking a bath and soaking in the warm water.  Feeling stressed?  Give yourself a day off to relax around the house and do something you love.

As you begin to approach dissociation or emotional attachment differently, you’ll find yourself integrating emotion into your life differently.  While this process may be painful at first, with time you’ll come to appreciate the richness of your ability to access emotions throughout your life.

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Do you feel disconnected from your feelings?  Do you often feel as if you’re outside of yourself and observing what’s going on around you?  Do you have a past history of traumatic memories that lead to your avoidance of situations that cause you to feel the same emotions?  Know that you are not alone, and there is help for you.  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling at my Ann Arbor therapy office to address issues of trauma, dissociation, and emotional detachment.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here today to hear more about how I can help.