Listen to me read the below here:
As a society we have, almost in unison, quit our bodies.
We’ve opted out against a life seemingly so ill-designed for humans. The life we are encouraged to lead–the hustlin’, ambitious, productivity based life–seems more suitable for robots. It doesn’t take into account our cycles, season, or needs.
Many cope with such a world by checking out physically, mentally, or emotionally. But there’s a word for this: dissociation.
We are ignoring our bodies on a grand scale, so removed from them we can’t even hear them any more. We unwittingly follow a widely paved path to pain. Dissociation has become more than an epidemic, it’s a normal state. But it’s so dangerous.
In many aspects of crisis, your body no longer feels your own. It belongs to the doctors, to the ones with the needles and the blood tests and the bags of chemo. It belongs to those paid to clean it and feed it. It belongs to the disease inhabiting it. It belongs to those who pay for its services–from sex work to computer programming. It belongs to the advertisers, to the people who like you on social media; it belongs to your partner, your parents, your child. It certainly doesn’t seem to belong to you anymore.
That was my experience in first living with illness. Too young, my body suddenly became an unsafe place. Things I’d previously relied on, like legs and memory, stopped working with no notice and no explanation. I was absorbed into another world–from a protected innocence into a world of doctors and hospitals, of people who asked about my diagnoses before my name, and many, many needle pricks. I remember sitting in the grey waiting room, so desperately scared, desperately longing to be anywhere else in the world. I closed my eyes to block out the scene in front of me; I went to sleep. And it took many years before I’d wake up again.
Now I work as an award-winning wellness expert, coach, author, motivational speaker, and writer. I help women with illness, pain, grief, trauma, and life crisis learn to live well, thrive and come home to what it means for them to be human.
Life can be tough, and we are taught that’s just the way it is. Social construct encourages us to give up our agency and conform to the norm. You become ill? Well, I suppose you’ll be needing a huge black wheelchair and a nice tartan blanket to cover your knees, hmm?
We hand over our own power over and over, because not to would be to opt out, and we’re taught there’s nothing worse than not fitting in. So over time, this denial of ourselves takes its toll and we don’t just opt out of our power–we opt out of our bodies, too.
Perhaps we do it through work, or through over-spiritualizing; perhaps we disassociate to escape abuse or pain or just the grind of a world that drags against our sensitive souls. But another way is possible. We can create our own role models, blaze our own trails, rise from the ashes of our former selves, and reclaim our bodies and worlds.
Dissociation is a common response to trauma. Dissociation itself is quite usual, and you’ve probably experienced it. If you’ve ever drifted off in a daydream, or had the experience of travelling somewhere familiar and realising you can’t remember the journey, or watching a film, and drifting off so although you’ve been awake you aren’t really sure of the story–that’s dissociation.
There’s a scale of dissociative experiences, and the daydream type are quite mild. On the other end are experiences like memory loss, dissociative identity disorder, not recognising your body as your own, and so forth. In trauma situations, if someone is in a situation they can’t tolerate but can’t physically escape from, they may well escape by dissociation–to check out–mentally when one can’t escape physically.
It can be a terrifying experience: not to know oneself, to drift free of one’s moorings, rootless, without an anchor, without a body, without a home, without a sense of self in which to return. To be severely dissociated can be to live in the storm of one’s thoughts, tempest-tossed from one fear spiral to another, without rest or any prospect of it.
For me, the first step in the journey home was to realise that I was experiencing dissociation, and what that meant.
We need to reclaim our bodies and lives and find a path home. And that path will be different for each of us, I can’t give you a three-step plan to solve all your troubles today. But I can talk about ways of finding your own path home and places to begin that adventure.
Let’s begin by exploring safety. It might feel very unfamiliar, even threatening. Staying numbed out may seem easier, safer.
But dissociation, rather than protecting us, actually makes us more vulnerable–because when you aren’t there, you can’t receive messages, your instincts can’t communicate with you, your boundaries are watery, and you aren’t there to enforce them.
So you can get more and more impinged upon, and your body seems less and less a safe place to be. Perhaps, eventually, you don’t come home to it at all.
Many of us don’t know what means to feel safe, and this chronic experience of risk can leave us depersonalised, derealised, and dissociated.
But what if your body were a safe place to be? What if it were possible to find your way back after a shock or crisis? Do you have a part of your body that feels okay, warm, pleasurable, awake? Or a memory of being present and alive in your body at some point?
In my work with coaching clients, I facilitate the client in getting a felt experience of their body, or of safety—something which means that if they do dissociate, they know how it feels to be ‘in body’ now. We work on the concept of the body as a safe place in the present. Knowing how to find a way back home. Jump out, jump back in again.
Resilience is something we can choose to build.
It is said not to pray for bad things not to happen, but for strong roots to survive whatever does. Resilience is your roots.
When we take care of ourselves in the non-crisis times, the crisis times get easier. Sometimes they get less likely to develop into crisis.
I work with clients to build their own Healing Passport. A guide to the optimum care of you. Working out things that are likely to encourage groundedness and embodiment, what triggers anxiety and dissociation, how to take care of yourself in a crisis–all this builds resilience.
And as much as we cannot guarantee our own safety in this life, we can build resilience to weather what may come.
Many times in illness or personal trauma, the trauma site–the reminder we want to escape, the place we can’t visit as it’s just too painful now–is our own bodies.
Out of touch with our bodies, we also struggle to touch the emotions. And while we can’t process them, the emotions and pain sit there, waiting for us, stored inside. We carry it with us. No wonder we don’t want to come home.
In my client work, we explore creating new neural pathways. I imagine our minds as a forest. Our habits and thought patterns are paths through the trees. Perhaps the reaction of checking out/numbing out/disassociating when faced with pain is a wide and well-trodden path. But it’s our job to create a new pathway–an optimum pathway, a way to respond while staying embodied.
We don’t talk about ‘bad’ or ‘good’ reactions–all the reactions are simply us doing the best we can for the space we are in. We instead work with ‘non-optimum’ and ‘optimum’ choices. Non-optimum choices make you feel less than optimum, and there are more enjoyable choices available. Optimum choices make you feel best. There’s a whole spectrum in between with which we can work.
Building new neural pathways from what we’ve stocked in your Coping Toolkit can be a huge shift. At first it can be tough, pushing through the trees and brambles, carving out that new path through the forest. But every time you take the new path it gets wider and deeper, more inviting, more familiar.
The old neural pathway doesn’t dissolve exactly, but it gets covered up with brambles and brush. It’s hazy now, overgrown, no longer familiar or inviting. You’ve made the new, optimum, embodied coping strategy the first option when you are moved to flight. You have a toolkit of coping options. You are strengthening your roots and building a foundation for life.
Dealing with trauma and dissociation are complex issues, beyond the scope of an essay (see disclaimer), but I hope that this has given you an understanding of what dissociation can look and feel like, and ideas of ways we can start to come home to our bodies and lives. I am writing in more depth about my personal experience of dissociation and my journey with it at my website; sign up for notifications at GraceQuantock.com.
Grace Quantock is an award-winning international wellness expert, coach, author, and motivational speaker. She is the founder of Healing Boxes CIC and The Phoenix Fire Academy. A Future Young Leader of Wales Award recipient, Great British Entrepreneur Awards, Wales Entrepreneur Awards and Britain’s Top Real Role Model finalist, Grace has been featured in The Hay Festival, Positive News, Gala Darling, TEDx, Huffington Post and The Times of London, Grace is recognized as a trail blazer by thousands of people who have seen her speak and participated in her programs. Currently living–and thriving–with often debilitating illness, she is the real deal and knows, firsthand, the emotional and physical rollercoaster that accompanies diagnosis and life struggle. A resident of Wales, Grace loves reading, gardening and early mornings. She firmly believes that life is meant to be celebrated, and has made it her mission to help others do just that… joyfully and on their own terms.
Dissociation must be diagnosed by a medical professional. This essay cannot be taken as medical advice. I encourage you to see a registered medical professional.
By reading this essay, you acknowledge that I am not a licensed psychologist or health care professional and my services do not replace the care of psychologists or other healthcare professionals.
Coaching is in no way to be construed or substituted as psychological counseling or any other type of therapy or medical advice. I will at all times exercise my best professional efforts, skills and care. However, I cannot guarantee the outcome of coaching efforts and/or recommendations on my website/blog/essay and my comments about the outcome are expressions of opinion only. I cannot make any guarantees other than to deliver the coaching services purchased as described.
This essay is an educational and informational resource for humans looking to heal. It is not a substitute for working with psychologist or other healthcare professional. I cannot guarantee the outcome of following the recommendations provided and my statements about the potential outcome are expressions of opinion only. I make no guarantees about the information and recommendations provided herein. By continuing to use/read/participate in this essay you acknowledge that I cannot guarantee any particular results, as such outcomes are based on subjective factors that are not within my control. Therefore, following any information or recommendations provided on this essay are at your own risk. If you need mental health treatment, you should hire a psychologist or other professional.