“…[did] my aptitude for controlled dissociation developed purely from practice, or was it somehow jumpstarted by … the past”
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
Welcome back Down the Rabbit Hole readers, and to Book Interrupted’s second season. The first book up this year is about trauma.
Heavy, I know.
Fear not! I’m not going to dig deep into your potentially battered psyche. I’ll leave that to the experts. Instead, let’s take a gentler road today. Afterall, curiosity can be sparked even in the dark corners of a troubled past.
Our journey today starts off easy enough with the oft quoted human response to threat. Fight, flight, flock, and freeze.
As an aside, I wonder whether the order I’ve listed those is telling of my culture or personality. Admittedly, I default to fight, particularly in the “spring into action” sort of way, though I’ve been known to switch into flight after further assessment.
While reading the book What Happened to You by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce D. Perry, my thoughts kept returning to one of the more subtle threat reactions: freeze. ‘Freeze’ evokes images of a deer in headlights, an inability to move or talk, though it also manifests as dissociation. Faced with an inescapable threat, the person goes inside themselves and disconnects from the outside world.
Ironically, perhaps in an attempt to escape the heavy topic of past trauma, my curiosity turned to so-called “good” dissociation states. It’s not all trauma related. In fact, some of it is down right desirable.
Dissociation is described as “… a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of who he or she is. This is a normal process that everyone has experienced.” Everyday examples are daydreaming, being so absorbed in a book that you don’t hear the person next to you, or arriving at your old work instead of the grocery store because you were driving on autopilot.
Then there’s next level stuff: the ability to control dissociative states. In their book, Perry lists reflective cognition, flow, hypnosis, and “being in the zone.” Meditation is another one, as is sinking into the golden goo that Glennon Doyle wrote about in Untamed.
I don’t mean to brag, but controlled dissociation is kind of my thing. Seriously, while focussing I’m nearly unreachable, and all sense of time, hunger, and fatigue escapes me. Luckily, I can fall asleep immediately after closing my eyes, which comes in handy when I stay up late after losing track of time.
Okay, maybe I’m bragging a little. The point is, I love being in my head. It’s my happy place.
I came to realize that I’m only really a fighter in certain situations. For example, in an emergency my instinct is to take charge.
When it comes to interpersonal conflict or everyday worries, I’m probably gravitate more towards freezing, yearning to escape inside myself. In particular, I find peace when engrossed in a new project, learning something new, or contemplating novel ideas.
Sometimes I don’t have the time or energy for all that. I confess, more and more I’ve found myself checking the same apps over and over on my phone. Although in the moment I get the same sense of detachment and escape, it leaves me feeling somewhat empty. It’s the same with other too-easy escapes, like a cracking a beer to ease the stress at the end of a hard day.
Some ways to escape are more nourishing than others.
In an attempt to replace escaping into my phone, I picked up my kid’s Kendama, a wooden Japanese skill toy. It’s essentially a cup and ball game, though more than that. I suspect it even improved my piano playing though some kind of common hand-eye coordination pathway. More importantly, I didn’t get that empty feeling afterwards. Why?
Lost in these thoughts, I serendipitously caught a CBC’s White Coat Black Art interview with Dr. Jud Brewer, author of Unwinding Anxiety, on my car radio. Brewer talked about the brain’s “default mode network.” Related to thinking of the self, it is activated by worry as well as bad habits and comparison. He describes some rewards as contractive as opposed to expansive, such as receiving likes on social media, drinking alcohol, or checking the phone repeatedly—the same activities people commonly use to escape today. Contraction catches us in an unsatisfying loop, while with expansion we break free and experience greater or lasting rewards. Interestingly, the default mode network can be deactivated during meditation. This all seemed connected to what was already on my mind.
Luckily, he recommended a better reward, one that was expansive. He called it the “bigger, better offer.” Replace vapid, fleeting rewards with either curiosity or kindness. Curiosity reconnects us to our feelings and sensations, essentially the opposite of dissociation. Kindness can be for others or ourselves, and is fulfilling.
This answer was both simple and comforting. While reading What Happened to You, I couldn’t help but wonder if my aptitude for controlled dissociation developed purely from practice, or was it somehow jumpstarted by a trauma-imposed dissociation from the past. Suddenly, I realized it doesn’t matter. When confronted with stress, I have a lot of tools in my toolbelt: meditation, flow, books, curiosity, kindness, or simply daydreaming. It just takes a little mindfulness.
It always seems to come down to that, doesn’t it?
At the end of a long day, if I’m too tired for all that, I can still have a beer.
Do you escape to unwind? What are your favourite ways?