There is a Disconnection
September 17, 2011 7:05 AM   Subscribe

How do I start feeling more connected after disassociating because of social anxiety and past experiences?

In order to answer my follow up question, it would be greatly appreciated if you could read my previous post (link provided below):

I ended up talking to a counselor not too long after I created my first post about disassociation. I gave my counselor a list of all of the points that I had mentioned which was recommended by others on the site. She told me that I need to become more mindful and that I can do this by becoming more aware of my surroundings, that I have thoughts even though they feel (very) distant, and that I have social anxiety and have disassociated myself as a defense mechanism.

My question is: how do I become more connected to other people, myself, and my surroundings? Regardless of who I am with or the number of people that I'm with, I constantly feel disassociated from my surroundings and everyone/everything in my environment. I find it even more unbearable when I am on my own at home because the silence creates an uncomfortable and itchy sensation in my mind.

My counselor told me that the process of disassociation took me three years and so, I can't expect things to happen over night although it won't take as long as three years to become connected again, but I just wish that there was an "on" switch that could activate my mind so that I can start feeling more connected to everyone and everything regardless of whether or not I care for those things.

I have also noticed that I feel very disconnected from everyone and everything and sometimes I say the wrong thing (i.e. inappropriate things) such as asking someone why they are coming over and if everything was okay. However, I do not realize that these words are harsh or rude until after I have said them, and even then, I only know that they are rude because of someone's anger. I realize that certain words and actions make me seem like a terrible person, especially since I say things in a matter of fact way which I have been called rude for and I am so tired of feeling this way, I should feel something more when I talk to people or when I apologize, but I can't bring myself to feel connected to anyone or anything.

I also think of myself as heartless because I don't feel any love for anyone in my life (including family or friends) or anything in my life. Logically, I know that I must love them because they are good people, I have known them for a long period of time, and we have had a lot of great times (along with some not so great times), but my heart doesn't fill with joy when I think about them or anyone else for that matter. However, I don't feel any hatred or dislike for anything either so it's very confusing recognizing emotions and realizing these emotions.

My birthday is soon too and I'm not looking forward to that day because people will say things like "happy birthday" with great intentions and I fear that I won't be able to show the same level of enthusiasm (will have distant thoughts, will express myself in a cold and aloof manner, or possibly won't feel anything at all).

My question is, how do I start feeling more connected again? I know that the answer is subjective, but I'm willing to try just about anything. I want to feel more connected and present in conversations and capable of feeling and recognizing certain emotions. Should I take my counselor's word and accept that I have social anxiety and that I have used disassociation as a defense mechanism? Or, should I try to speak to an on campus physician to see if there is something else that has resulted in me experiencing disassociation for the past three years.

I guess, I just need someone to talk to about all of this besides a counselor sometimes. I've only talked to my counselor once about what I have experienced and I tried talking to my friend but she didn't understand this and said things like "I hope you get better soon" as if things would magically change for me.

If you have any personal experiences regarding disassociation and your ability to overcome disassociation (or not) then it would be greatly appreciated. I just want to know that I am not alone in this...
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
In our mindfulness class they had us focus on our breathing, on the feeling of our lungs expanding and chest rising, etc. I find that being immersed in water is also a great way to get in touch with physical sensations. Baths, showers, and swimming pools all do it for me. Exercise is another one, but it's difficult for me because pretty soon I'm very very uncomfortable.

I only get dissociated from life/people/experiences when I'm very scared or very depressed. I actually get full-blown depersonalization sometimes, which is in itself quite frightening. There were a few weeks, about six months ago, where I felt like a robot on autopilot. The fact this upset me was the only thing that I could hold onto. Wellbutrin helped with that for a little while, and then even though I was off of it the depersonalization didn't come back.

Note: I also have a problem with ADHD drifting or "blinks," which colors all of my opinions and experiences in this area. I lose whole hours sometimes.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 8:40 AM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

You are very much not alone.

Dissociation is very common in people who experience serious anxiety. I experience dissociation, too, but I've come a very long way with the help of a therapist. I didn't always know what was the cause of any given episode. I would have thought everything was fine and then suddenly boom. Felt, like Fee said, as if I was on autopilot. Like I didn't really know anyone around me. It's a very scary feeling. But if I looked back, I would always be able to find a reason. I just always believed myself more resilient than that. I've had to learn I'm only human.

What your counselor tells you about your social anxiety being behind it is probably true. I know it can be hard to believe that such alien feelings are created by an otherwise healthy brain, but that's often how it is. It is a defense mechanism. You have to learn to retrain your brain. That's something your counselor is there to help you with.

What you need are resources to help you through the scary times. Things that help me:
  • Background noise. I don't like silence either. I always have a movie playing in the background because sometimes music isn't enough.
  • Something to pull you out of that spiral. I work jigsaw puzzles on my iPad when I'm feeling weird. This forces me to focus only on small visual details. No anxiety. No bigger picture. No overwhelming sense of doom. Just "This has blue in it. That has blue in it." I also keep a small book of paintings with me when I'm out and about so that I can look for details in the pictures should I start dissociating away from home. It works.
  • Meditation with slow, even breathing in and out. I have a soundtrack of comforting sounds like ocean waves and thunderstorms. I listen to this with my eyes closed for about fifteen minutes, focused on my breathing. I imagine a light moving up and down through my body with each breath. This isn't metaphysical hooey. It helps you learn to focus and stay in the present.
  • When with someone and you feel you're slipping away, find some detail about that person to pull you back. Are you better visually? Focus on some small detail of their face or clothing. Think only about that. Are you better with sound? Listen to whomever's speaking and break those sounds down into little pieces in your head. Don't worry about comprehending the actual meaning. You're just focused on the sound. If they're actually speaking directly to you, you might have to be like "I'm sorry, I just realized I forgot something and got distracted. Could you repeat yourself?" But better that than feeling the wall between yourself and your own feelings.
  • Tell someone close to you. A family member. A friend. Just someone. Recovery is a lot easier when you don't feel like you have to pretend all the time.
All the above aside, talk to a physician too. They may prescribe anti-anxiety medication for you. I have Xanax on an as-needed basis. I haven't needed it for a very long time, but when things were really bad, half a Xanax helped me return to the present. Like I actually felt connected again. But that was only for emergencies. I wouldn't rely on it every day.

I've also been given a list of supplements to take daily to help boost my serotonin levels, balance my moods, and help me focus. They work for me. Do not start these without talking to your doctor even though you can find them in any health food store or GNC. Not everyone reacts to them the same way, and there are are some things they can't be combined with. Ask your doctor about 5-htp. I also take an orally-absorbing vitamin B complex, flax oil, and fish oil. The 5-htp can make you feel really depressed when you first start taking it. This usually goes away after a few days. But that's the serious one. Ask your doctor. Don't start it on your own.

Most importantly: remember that you will not always feel this way. You need help. You're already getting it. It is a process. You are not doomed to spend the rest of your life struggling to connect with people. It's taken me a few months, but I hardly ever dissociate now. If I do, it's for a few seconds max.

Good luck and be patient. It'll get better.
posted by katillathehun at 10:30 AM on September 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Here's something that temporarily works for me. I'd be curious if it works for anyone else.

Narrow your eyelids to where you're just seeing a blurry sliver of the world through your eyelashes. Now listen. Try to visualize the space around you using only what you hear. Keep going for a minute or two until you've added all the detail you can. Now open your eyes.

Seems more real, doesn't it?
posted by the jam at 10:49 AM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

In addition to the suggestions here, I suggest that you consider seeing a psychiatrist as well as a counselor, in case there are medications that might help you get started.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:58 AM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing you might do is try paying more attention to what you DO feel rather than how you SHOULD feel. I think people can really make themselves miserable (or compound their misery) when they don't meet their own expectations for themselves and don't realize that modifying those expectations are a valid option.

So... while you may have totally reasonable goals for social integration, maybe they are still so far away that your first few steps still seem insignificant. Maybe it would help to have some intermediate goals. Maybe you could start just by paying attention to the people around you. With each person you interact with, think of one thing you like about them (even, and maybe especially, with people who are annoying). It doesn't matter what that thing is, just appreciate it.

Once you've gotten in the habit of doing this, work up to engaging with them. Get in the habit of always smiling when you say hello, and always smiling and saying hello to people you don't have to--the cashier at the grocery store, or whatever. They will usually smile back, and that will help you feel nice and warm.

Then work up to complimenting the person on that thing you like about them. Or, if it's not a subject for casual conversation (telling the gas station attendant he has lovely eyes), find something nice to say about your surroundings, the weather, an upcoming holiday, even how much you're looking forward to the candy bar you're buying.

These were things I consciously did to become less shy (natural introvert working in an extroverted field), so I hope they can help you.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:58 AM on September 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I find that when I'm in an anxious phase (for me dissociation is just a symptom of runaway anxiety) I tend to do a lot of research and consulting on the internet, like posting on mefi, and thats precisely the wrong thing to do. Do research and seek advice online by all means, but only when you're well. Doing so during a bad period just serves to trap you in this anxious looping weird obsessively-self-reflecting state. Bad periods are when you try to implement whatever strategies work for you, like the things katillathehun mentioned. At least, that's been my experience, YMMV.
posted by tempythethird at 10:59 AM on September 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

I’ve been there but not to the same degree as you, OP. I had many years though where I 1) did not really connect to people 2) was not really concerned about most people that I interacted with (lack of affect, emotion), and 3) did feel really uncomfortable around people that I did not know. I think that I’ve overcome 1 and 2 but can’t really list why.

However, it may help you to see that there are even similar people in fiction (read Camus The Stranger).

The two things below were things that helped me, although I don’t know if they will help you, too (but you could try them once or twice, or other things in the other responses).

One thing that helped me connect to people, believe it or not, was volunteering with people one on one. I was a literacy tutor for a while, and was assigned the same person for several months. I realized how hard the person struggled, worked, and I can’t explain the process but it helped me connect to another person, if even briefly. I don’t know if you have opportunities like that, but if there is something that you are very passionate about and want to make a difference, can you volunteer and work with someone one on one?

The other thing that helped me momentarily to not focus on the discomfort/anxiety when interacting with people was to do physical activities with people. For me it is/was biking (long rides). Even if the other people are complete strangers, you can focus on riding, moving, etc. People will talk to you but everyone is more concerned about biking – so it helps you let go of those feelings, if it makes sense. Anyway, if there are any sports/physical activities that you enjoy (and group/club activities), give it a go.

Nthing young rope-rider – consult with a psychiatrist, too.
posted by Wolfster at 12:17 PM on September 17, 2011

Dear anonymous:

You cannot force yourself (bring yourself, should yourself) to feel genuine anything, it either happens or it doesn't. To demand from yourself to feel genuine x leads into a downward spiral of unhappiness.

As a teenager I experienced feeling light years away in the middle of a hard-won circle of friends. I didn't appear outwardly moved when our dog died which my parents grudged for years. I fucking hated birthdays, and don't get me started on New Year's Eves.

In my 20s for keeping cool outwardly I used to recall scenes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Johnny Depp's character is acting sangfroid whatever his acid trip is suggesting to him e.g. a hotel bar full of blood-bathing reptiles. That should give you an idea about the amount of disconnection I was feeling.

At some point a couple years back I became convinced that making a genuine attempt at doing the mechanics of social interaction well was the next best thing to do even if I couldn't feel them. Books like this helped by giving me constructive "subtitles" to social situations rather than the stuck loop of frustrated problem-solving (which is really rumination).

I'm not trying to fake being genuinely emotionally affected, just trying to be there with people as much as I can. (I like my birthdays now, but before I tried to be like a team player, not grudging the others the celebration when the occasion was "on me".)

The mindfulness , exercising that mental muscle which pulls me back into the moment, really works for me btw. The suggestion I keep coming back to is to congratulate myself every time I find my mind wandering (because I recognised it, and on that awareness FTW).

Again, you cannot force yourself to feel stuff "out of your own free will" ("You must love me but out of your own free will" - cf. RD Laing, Knots) so do not dwell on the confusion, annoyance and self-blame. These feeling lead to internally withdrawing, which feeds "avoiding mode" which doesn't help trying to be approach-ey with people. Keep in mind temporarily losing access to emotional responses doesn't mean you won't be rewarded for "putting in the work" (like paying a monthly sum into an ISA which will pay out later).
posted by yoHighness at 4:58 AM on September 18, 2011

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