Help this space cadet stay grounded
December 13, 2012 3:35 PM   Subscribe

I am often spaced-out and disconnected. This happens often but it definitely happens when a situation becomes emotionally intense or emotionally difficult. This is possibly linked to my ADHD (inattentive type). Also possibly to the fact that my mother is very dramatic and when I was young she expressed all her emotions with great intensity, and I was often frightened. If you or someone you know have experienced this, what has made it better?

This has been brought to a head by my improv class. I've noticed that when someone approaches me in an emotional way I shut down and go numb. I can hardly think what to do. The other day in class someone initiated a scene as a very anxious child, yelling. I almost felt as if I went outside of my body. I could not even hear everything she was saying, I was so .. not there. When we restarted, I responded in a way that diminished her character's emotions. It wasn't the good scene it could have been.

FWIW, I also do this when my boss says "you didn't get the x reports out this week, what happened?" Lots of people probably think I am stupid or don't care because I can think of NOTHING to say. Any uncomfortable emotion, or even just an intense one, can cause me to shut down in this way.

I'm being pushed, in class, to show my emotions in more intense ways and I find this very hard and it feels very inauthentic to me. But I see that this is a valuable insight into my personality and possibly linked to my inattentive-type ADHD. I also suspect this may be why I am lacking the intimacy and closeness I would like in my relationships.

I'd like to be more connected and present but it seems impossible. I don't make a decision to space out, and even when I want to be present I just don't know how to make it happen.

Questions: How can I make this better? How can I express my own emotions more effectively and bravely? How can I remain present when others' emotions are so alarming for me?

Other info: Already in therapy, and planning to change next year to a therapist who specializes in ADHD.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
My mom was abusive. I did this as well, and still do it to some extent. I also have ADD, but this was more disassociation. I'm much better able to control it now, and it manifests more as general unflappability in the face of stress than as me checking out, though it some times annoys people that are close to me--- "Why aren't you more upset by this?"

As far as your acting class goes -- that's a genuine reaction to emotional stress in your case. Maybe try to own it. Everyone yelling at each other is not necessarily good acting -- and someone who can calmly engage with a situation without getting in a screaming match can be chilling and/or authoritative, depending on how you play it.
posted by empath at 3:51 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Buddhist practice and meditation. It focuses a lot on getting comfortable with your emotions, or "making friends" with them. That you are bigger than emotion (yours or others') and not fearing emotion. A good meditation teacher helped me a million times more than my (excellent) therapist. I recommend Thich Nhat Hahn's "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching" as a starting point.
posted by peacrow at 3:52 PM on December 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

EMDR helped me with this. (and it was quick!)
posted by small_ruminant at 3:52 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had/have this. One really useful technique a psychologist taught me was to imagine the words and emotions hitting a glass wall in front of me and sliding off. It requires practice, but provides an imaginary barrier. The other thing I was taught to do in conflict resolution classes were to acknowledge someone's point of view, without arguing. I can't work out a way to put that in context of your boss, because it didn't sound like an angry question.
posted by b33j at 4:20 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a therapist, but not yours, and this is not clinical advice or a diagnosis.

As you describe this (and based only on what you describe) this is not likely related to your ADD, although the reverse may be true. What you are describing, as empath points out, is dissociation. It's a common technique for dealing with overwhelming situations for people who have been overwhelmed a lot previously with no way to remove themselves from the situation (e.g., by parents). You are more likely to find someone who works with dissociative behavior among therapists who work specifically with trauma.
posted by OmieWise at 4:27 PM on December 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

Running has helped me a little. Dealing with exhaustion and the emotional response it triggers has helped me to deal a little better with a broader range of emotions in other areas as well. But you have to go deep.
posted by deo rei at 4:28 PM on December 13, 2012

First, OmieWise's advice is great. In the mean time:

I had this problem, and still do to some extent. What has helped me when people are spewing emotion at me (whether it is justified or not), is to ask "what do you want me to do?", then focus on the proposed solution, not the emotion. This helps keep you "present" in the conversation, and helps prevent you from diminishing other's emotions. Also, it makes them responsible for providing the solution to their outburst in a concrete way that still makes them feel heard.


Angry Person: B*tch! You didn't get my ^&%$ paperwork done!!

Me: What would you like me to do?

Angry Person: Get it done!!!!

Me (politely): Okay, I can have it done by the end of this week. Have a nice day.

Then I either leave, or periodically repeat "Okay, I can have it done by the end of this week" until they stop.

The reason this has worked for me, is that once the emotional landslide is over, I am better able to decide whether their outburst was fair/unfair, how I want to handle it, if I need to have a "talk" with the person, etc.

Just make sure that you don't get yourself into a situation where you agree to something that you don't want to do, "that won't be possible" is your friend when you're in a jam and being asked to do the impossible or are stunned and caught off guard.

Note: This advice is not meant as a permanent solution. Just something to try while you work through your issue in therapy. Repeat: seek therapy from a professional, there is no quick fix for this.
posted by Shouraku at 4:55 PM on December 13, 2012

I am by no means a therapist, but it does sound like dissociation. I've heard that dissociation is like a computer that is overloaded and shuts down because it's unable to process further information.

I have had dissociation. It was terrifying and always there for a year or so. I felt like I was always having out of body experiences, especially when my sense of safety felt threatened which is when I'd do as you described--shut down, space out, and disconnect. At times, I honestly felt like I was watching over myself from a different corner of the room. Things are much better now and I don't experience dissociation to that extent anymore. But, dissociation is something that we all experience (since it's connected to daydreaming too) the difference is how much it interferes with your life.

In regards to how you can improve things...

For me, weekly therapy with a psychiatrist specialized in trauma was very helpful. He helped me learn grounding techniques and ultimately, I was able to come back to where I feel more in my body now compared to a year or two ago.

Regular weekly or bi-weekly check-ins with a mental health professional are very important. So, if you're not already doing that then you should probably increase the amount of times you see you therapist. I'd also recommend looking into EMDR therapy. This was recommended by a psychologist I was working with at the time. There's a lot of different opinions surrounding this type of therapy, but it's worth checking out.

During your free time you should focus on developing grounding techniques which can help you out during the types of interactions that you mentioned. These techniques were recommended to me by a few different mental health professionals at the time.

A few grounding techniques are listed in this resource.

The grounding technique that I frequently worked on during my sessions with my psychiatrist focused on:
--Naming 5 things that you see
--Naming 4 things that you feel (such as I feel my feet on the floor or my hand touching the couch armrest)
--Naming 3 things that you can hear
--Naming 2 things that you can smell (or 2 things that you like the smell of) and
--Naming 1 thing that you like about yourself

We also worked on the cognitive grounding exercise listed in the resource link above. I found these two grounding techniques helped me out tremendously to the point where I was no longer terrified, shut down, or numb during our sessions. Just to let you know, but you might have to do these techniques a couple of times in a row until you feel more connected to yourself.

My psychiatrist at the time also recommended these two resources:
1. Life After Trauma (workbook) and
2. The Woman's Comfort Book

posted by livinglearning at 5:39 PM on December 13, 2012 [7 favorites]

I also struggle with dissociation (a "freeze" or blanking-out response to emotionally triggering situations) and I also take improv classes, specifically as a self-administered therapeutic antidote. If you generally feel safe in the class -- is it a closed group you like and trust? Is the teacher supportive and risk- and failure-friendly? -- I encourage you to stay with it. You're confronting two phobias at once -- fear of standing on a stage and being looked at, and fear of expressing and receiving emotion -- so yes, it's going to trigger you from time to time and your mind will go blank, but things will get better if you stick with it and focus less on whether you're doing "good scenes" and more on being willing to take risks, relax control, endure the emotional arousal and acquire new skills.

An improv class is, after all, one of the safest places you can experiment with situations, behaviors and themes you might find ballistically threatening in real life. At its best, it's a charmed circle inside which nothing that happens has any real-world consequences or is judged as it would be "out there". And many of the techniques involved in improv (read Keith Johnstone's Impro! It is about so much more than just theater!) are also excellent grounding, mindfulness and general anti-dissociation techniques: listening to your partner, picking up on their body language and offers, recalling and reincorporating material, being aware of your physical presence, accepting what your unconscious presents you with, not backing away from emotion, remaining and reacting in the present instead of thinking ahead, learning how to make order (stories) out of chaos (several different people's assorted offers). If you have real problems with focus, as I do, it may take you longer to acquire these techniques, but I can't think of a safer and more fun place to learn and practice them.

I echo the advice others have given about grounding techniques and also encourage you to take up some body-based practice (mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, Focusing, Somatic Experiencing) that teaches you to be present and aware of what is going on in your body, especially when you're under stress. Just being able to tune into my physical responses when I'm freaking out ("Okay, my mind has gone blank, I feel dizzy, I'm not breathing properly, my body temperature has shot up, my tinnitus is roaring"), stay with them and narrate them to myself or another person has done a lot to diminish how frightening they are, and to mitigate the symptoms themselves.

I've also just ordered this book, which looks promising for its emphasis on being mindfully aware of symptoms while not letting them dictate your life and actions.

From one improv space cadet to another: I wish you the best of luck, and it does get better. Feel free to MeMail me if you'd like to talk further.
posted by stuck on an island at 2:52 AM on December 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

ADD inattentive type, improv class - we have a lof of common. Regarding the improv you should be more confident in the character you're playing and choose/build characters as different from you as possible. Playing someone radically different from the real you will enable you/your character to have more freedom in the emotional domain.
posted by Baud at 5:27 AM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

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