What Dissociation Looks Like

Let’s look at dissociation and how it relates to anger. We know that anger can be either grounded or dissociated. In other words, I stay connected to the present moment, my senses engaged, and feel angry . . . or I lose that present moment connection and go into anger numbing instead.

These signs of dissociation happen when a person gets confronted with anger they’re afraid to feel.

  1. Feeling floaty or unreal; feeling you don’t really exist
  2. The sensation of being separate from what is going on around you
  3. Dizziness
  4. Nausea
  5. Sudden illness or physical problems like unexplained pain (especially back pain), itching, or even loss of the use of a limb, an eye, etc.
  6. Panic, or a panic attack.
  7. Confusion, bewilderment, or being unable to solve a problem you’d ordinarily be able to solve
  8. Feeling sluggish, sleepy, or “out of it”
  9. Going numb
  10. Shame
  11. Being unable to concentrate or “get it together”

Put a big star beside panic. Panic attacks almost always signal anger that’s being held back.

The Body in Anger Numbing Dissociation

What’s really happening during dissociation? When we dissociate, the parts of the brain where emotion is most observable get inhibited, while the prefrontal cortex activates. In other words, feeling areas go dark and cognitive control areas dominate.

Seems ironic huh? During dissociation, the part of your brain that plans, executes, and squelches your urges takes center stage to control your feelings, push them to the background. That prefrontal cortex slaps down your emotion centers.

And yet . . . I lose my sharp thinking when I dissociate. What’s up with that?

Dissociation has Survival Value

Anger dissociation protected us at some point. Newer evidence shows dissociation starts in infancy and allows a baby who is overstressed to “go numb,” rather than feel all that anger or terror. If you’re being neglected as a baby, your fear, rage, and seeking overload the emotion circuits, so to speak, and you mercifully dissociate through a shutting-down process in the lower part of the brain. For more on this subject, check out the work of Sandra Paulsen and colleagues.

So, anger numbing most likely helps us survive in early childhood when our young, stressed-out parents fail us in some way. But as adults, this once-adaptive numbing robs us of the ability to process information. And if we had to dissociate a lot as babies, that breaker-popping became an automatic default, as in “attention-deficit disorder,” depression, and a host of medical problems.

Sometimes, the barest hint that we’re angry triggers early childhood panic states and we go numb before we know it. Literally.

In The Anger Advantage, my colleagues and I shared a model called Anger Diversion. Today, I believe each of the diversion types we observed back then was a form of anger dissociation or anger-numbing.

So how do we change this ingrained pattern of anger-numbing? Let’s start here: Write down everything you know about your first three years. How well were your needs met? How and when do you dissociate now?

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