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HannaCespedes Apr 13, 2021

To Connect or not: Dissociation in a Covid World

Life over the past year has looked quite different than years of previous. It is important to focus on how we have survived through this unprecedented time and highlight the strength and patience that you (yes, you reader!) have exhibited over the past year. No doubt, it has been challenging to acclimate to the new normal. From a social science and psychological perspective, we have had to disconnect from others in order to live: no hugging, no handshakes, no being within 6 feet of others. This is a confusing and somewhat backwards concept as we are social creatures that crave and need interaction and touch to survive. This was made extremely apparent during the 1940’s with research on orphanages. Death rates in orphanages have always been high and it was not until Austrian physician Dr. Rene Spitz proposed that a potential reason for the death rates results from the isolation, lack of affection, and overall deprivation that these children experienced. His proposal spearheaded research into the effect of isolation and its influence on our mental and physical wellness. Results were astounding. Consistently, researchers found that when in isolation, individuals were more likely to have poorer health outcomes with physical health, greater challenges with mental illness, and an increase in behavioral problems when compared to those who had connection and community.

The research that Spitz conducted almost 80 years ago is more than applicable in 2021. We may not be locked in orphanages or in prison cells, but we have had to shelter in place, keep away from our loved ones, and deny ourselves human interaction with others. It would be foolish to say that this has not and will not affect us moving forward in a post covid world. In my clinical practice, I have had many clients report feelings of disconnection from self and others, aka disassociation. They describe how their anxiety shoots through the roof when seeing another person on the street while they are walking, how they have a genuine startle response when someone walks close by to them, and how it is so much easier to just turn off their thoughts and feelings rather than pay attention to them. The way our brain processes trauma (such as a worldwide pandemic) is to try to find ways to survive and worry about the psychological problems later. Well, I would argue now is the “later” time and it is imperative we take a look at the pandemic of disassociation before it worsens.

 Symptoms of disassociation are diverse and can range from feeling “numb” to emotions and thoughts to challenges with socially interacting with others. Whatever it might be for you, there are effective treatments and ways to handle dissociative experiences. Here are some helpful options to focus on:

  1. Find a safe space to explore these feelings:
    • Whether it be a therapy office or with a loved one, one of the first steps to healing from dissociative experiences is to talk about it!
  2. Coping Skills:
    • Trying to keep stress and anxiety down can help with symptom relief. Finding effective coping skills that work for you can be a beneficial part of the healing process. Try walking, deep breathing, or journaling your thoughts and experiences (or all three!)
  3. Stop the judgement
    • Dissociation is a challenging (and sometimes down right confusing) experience to live with. Rather than letting it control us, let’s practice learning to put it in its place! If you experience dissociative symptoms, you are not alone and are not “broken”.

Practice being kind to yourself and giving yourself a break during these -you know it- unprecedented times. You are worth it.

Hanna Cespedes is a counselor working on her PhD at Mercer University located in Atlanta, GA. She is currently working within private practice and hopes to serve her local community through promoting awareness for mental health in all walks of life and breaking the stigma surrounding serious mental illness.

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