What is dissociation?

Dissociation is a self-protective mechanism in the brain that we all experience from time to time. It’s what happens when you feel overwhelmed and your brain shuts parts of itself down so you can cope with the situation. For example, when people have a car crash, they often report strange things happening, like time slowing down, floating above the scene of the accident, or not feeling any pain despite being injured. These are symptoms of dissociation, as the brain has shut down a bit to help them deal with the overwhelming and upsetting situation.

Think of dissociation like a circuit breaker being triggered. If there’s an electrical surge, a circuit breaker gets tripped to switch circuits off, so no electrical devices get damaged. That’s what happens in your brain when you dissociate.

If you experienced traumatic events as a child, your brain will have shut down to protect you. This was a healthy, ‘adaptive’ response to overwhelming feelings and sensations that your little self could not handle. But over time, dissociation becomes a habitual response, so your brain shuts down even when you experience much milder feelings, like a little anxiety.

Symptoms of dissociation

Unfortunately, dissociation causes various problems for us – we may feel spacey, empty, numb or weird in some other way (this is called ‘depersonalisation’). We might go blank, or struggle to hear what someone’s saying to us. Some people say everything looks far away, or it’s as if they are looking through a thick glass wall at the world (known as ‘derealisation’). When we dissociate we struggle to concentrate or remember important information. Not helpful if you are in a meeting, or about to take an exam.

You might experience dissociation when your anxiety is high – it’s a common symptom of panic attacks, for example. Or when you feel threatened in some way, your schemas getting triggered by a stressful event or situation that reminds you of something threatening from your past. I recently wrote a post about the ‘Detached Protector’ mode which we work with in schema therapy – this is a dissociative mode.

The good news is that dissociation can be treated – I have helped many people with dissociative problems using schema therapy. If you would like some help with your dissociation, call me on 07766 704210, email or use the Contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,


Overcoming panic attacks


If you have ever suffered a panic attack, you will know how unpleasant they can be. During an attack, you may feel extremely anxious, hot, wobbly, dizzy and light-headed, with palpitations (increased heart rate), heart pounding or missing a beat, breathlessness and possibly 'de-realisation', when everything seems unreal or you feel as if you are floating, or disconnected from reality. Your thoughts will probably race and you may also experience visual disturbance, when colours or shapes seem to change. Because the physical symptoms of a panic attack feel so strong, people commonly fear they are physically ill and end up in hospital, only to be told there is nothing physically wrong with them and it's 'only' anxiety.

Cognitive therapy is proven to be extremely effective at treating panic attacks (and anxiety in general), so if you are having problems with panic, email to book a session with me. There are also some simple, effective techniques you can use to help yourself:

1. Stay where you are. If you feel panic rising, don't try and rush somewhere safe. Just stay where you are until the panic subsides – it can be dangerous to try and drive, for example, during an attack.

2. Distract yourself. When you feel your anxiety rising and you feel any of the above symptoms, use distraction to take your focus away from the physical sensations in your body. Try staring intently at anything non-threatening, such as the second hand on your watch, or count anything – books on a bookshelf, bricks in a wall, tins in the cupboard – nearby. If you can concentrate, doing sudoku or crossword puzzles is good, as are times tables or counting down in twos from 100. Try different distraction techniques until you find the right one for you.

2. Breathe. Because people often feel they can't get enough air when they're anxious or panicky, they tend to gulp big breaths, which is what causes the feelings of dizziness and light-headedness. Consciously slow your breathing right down to a slow, steady count of three in through your nose and out through your mouth.

Finally, remember that anxiety may feel really unpleasant – but it cannot do you any harm at all. It always passes (usually in a matter of minutes) and can definitely be treated.

Warm wishes,