How To Help Someone Who’s Dissociating
Dissociation is one of the least understood mental health conditions, but almost anyone can dissociate if in the right conditions.
Dealing with dissociation is very hard for people with dissociative disorders, but if you’re not the person experiencing dissociation it can be hard to know how to help.
If you know someone who suffers from a dissociative disorder or if you just want to be prepared to help a stranger in need, then you’re in luck.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what dissociation is, how to tell if someone’s having a dissociative episode, and some ways you can help them.
What Is Dissociation?
First of all, let’s take a closer look at what dissociation actually means.
Dissociation is when someone’s mind separates itself from reality; this could include the mind wandering from the present moment, or disconnecting from reality.
While everyone can have dissociative episodes occasionally due to factors such as trauma or a lack of sleep/food, some people experience dissociation on a regular basis without any external influences.
These people may be diagnosed with a dissociative disorder.
There are several dissociative disorders, and it’s estimated that around 2% of people in the USA suffer from some form of dissociative disorder.
The most common of these is Dissociative Identity Disorder (more commonly referred to as DID), which is estimated to affect approximately 1% of the population of the USA.
People without a dissociative disorder are also able to dissociate, and there are several other disorders where dissociation can present itself as a symptom.
These include PTSD, bipolar disorder, and even generalized depression.
What Are The Symptoms Of Dissociation?
If you’ve not experienced dissociation before, it can be hard to understand some of the symptoms it causes. These symptoms include:
- Feeling detached from reality, either mentally or physically
- Feeling dizzy
- Hyperventilating and/or a pounding heart
- Loss of focus
- An altered perception of time and space
- Tunnel Vision
- Emotional detachment
Many of the symptoms of dissociation can be debilitating if not treated or managed properly.
Without the proper support system and coping mechanisms, people with dissociative disorders can struggle to stay on top of their symptoms.
People who dissociate can also find it difficult to keep track of time, and more severe dissociative episodes can put people at risk due to a lost sense of their surroundings and detachment from reality.
Dissociative disorders such as DID aren’t to be confused with daydreaming.
While everyone’s mind can wander from time to time, people with dissociative disorders deal with severe symptoms that can impact their day-to-day lives dramatically.
As a result, someone going through a dissociative episode can’t just “snap out of it”.
How Can You Tell If Someone’s Dissociating?
Without many physical symptoms, it’s tricky to know when someone else is dissociating.
If you know someone has a dissociative disorder, the signs can be easier to pick up on; with strangers, however, you might not know what to look for.
There are several things you should look out for if you’re concerned that someone is dissociating.
Here’s how you can tell.
A Blank Or Glazed Expression
When someone is going through a dissociative episode, their eyes can seem to glaze over and their expression can become blank. They may also appear to be staring into nothingness.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that they don’t see you – they do, but they may struggle to properly process your presence.
Someone who’s dissociating can seem spacey and zoned out, and this can reflect in their face. If someone with a dissociative disorder has a glazed look or is expressionless, it could be a sign that their mind has started to wander.
Loss Of Focus And Reactions To External Stimuli
During a dissociative episode, it can be hard to focus on reality. Not only that, but someone who’s dissociating can have a tough time determining what’s real and what’s not.
As a result, a dissociating person might become less responsive to what’s happening around them. They may not respond or engage in a conversation, or lose focus on what they’re doing.
Another way this can present itself is through emotional and physical numbness. A person with a dissociative disorder can feel detached from their body, meaning that they don’t respond to pain or emotional stimuli.
While you can’t really tell if someone’s feeling this way from the outside, if someone’s not reacting to the world around them or doesn’t seem to notice physical and emotional stimuli it can indicate a dissociative episode.
Reduced Speech Or Movement
A person in a dissociative episode typically closes themselves off from others, so may not speak or move much.
Their speech can also be disjointed and mumbled, due to splintered focus between reality and the disconnected reality they are experiencing.
This also links to a lack of reactions, where the dissociating person is less responsive to real-life stimuli like a conversation or other external influences.
Reduced speech and movement can indicate that the person dissociating isn’t really present.
Another way speech and movement can be affected by dissociation is if the person seems to zone in and out of activities.
This could present itself as the dissociating person needing to have sentences repeated to them several times, or if they go off-track in a conversation without being aware of what they were saying.
Alternatively, they could complete a repetitive task on autopilot without having any memory of doing it.
How To Help Someone Who’s Dissociating
When it comes to dealing with someone who’s having a dissociative episode, there are some important things you need to consider. First and foremost, the person’s safety should be your highest priority.
While dissociation itself might not necessarily be harmful on its own, there’s a chance that a dissociated person can come into harm’s way during an episode.
Try to keep them away from dangerous situations like busy roads or stressful situations. Someone who is dissociating should also avoid driving, or performing tasks that are dangerous without proper attention (such as cooking).
If you suspect that someone is dissociating, try to get them to take a break from whatever they’re doing. It can be helpful to ask them to sit down for a few minutes and relax.
You can also encourage them to talk about what they’re going through, or walk them through calming exercises if they appear distressed.
Breathing exercises can help them to feel more grounded; other grounding techniques include listing things they are able to sense with each of their senses (sights, sounds, smells, etc.).
Avoid trying to reason with or challenge what a dissociating person is experiencing. While their altered perception may seem strange or nonsensical to you, it can be very real for them.
Instead of trying to convince them that they’re ‘wrong’, show empathy and understanding.
For example, if someone having a dissociative episode is scared of something they’re experiencing that isn’t real, don’t argue with them about whether or not it really exists; instead, empathize with them and try to reassure them that you understand their fears but that they are safe from harm.
As mentioned earlier, someone with a dissociative disorder can’t just ‘snap out of it’, and you need to understand that it can take time to recover from a dissociative episode.
The shift back to reality can be jarring and disorienting, and some experiences can be deeply upsetting. When a dissociative episode is finished, make sure that you give the person the right care and attention.
Avoid any triggers that you might know of, and do your best to make them feel safe and secure.
Often, the best thing you can do is listen – sometimes your best intentions might not be what the person needs at that moment, so be prepared to give them more space if requested.
Dissociation can be tough to understand and deal with, especially if it’s not you experiencing it. However, now you know some of the signs of dissociation and some ways you can help a person going through a dissociative episode.
Education is a large part of the battle, and now that you know a bit more about dissociation its symptoms you’re much better equipped to help someone who’s going through a dissociative episode.
While dealing with dissociation is hard to do, with the proper care and compassion it can be much easier to deal with.
A good network of friends and family can make a world of difference for people suffering from dissociative disorders, and with this guide, you’ll be able to support and help loved ones and strangers who are dealing with dissociation.
Author: Michelle Landeros, LMFT
Michelle Landeros is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist (LMFT). She is passionate about helping individuals, couples and families thrive.
Last updated: November 29, 2023