Is Dissociation Behind All Your Problems?

Centuries ago, Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I believe he was describing not a fear of loneliness but a fear of being with ourselves. Being here now in the present moment with our feelings, experiences, and fears. Facing what Kierkegaard called “the dizziness of freedom.”

Why is this so difficult?

I have come to learn that trauma is simply part of the human experience. Shock trauma, developmental trauma, relational trauma, generational trauma, collective trauma, complex trauma, etc. As a reminder, trauma is not a thing that happens to you, but what happens inside of you as a result. And all trauma is dissociative in nature. It’s a mechanism that separates you from an unbearable reality.

When faced with overwhelming experiences of powerlessness, animals instinctively react with fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses — all attempts to neutralize a threat. These are moments when your nervous system receives the message loud and clear that the present moment is not ok, and you have to escape it somehow!

And when you are not living in the present moment, you are dissociated.

Where The Mind Takes You

If you’re like most people, the second your eyes pop open in the morning, an unyielding stream of arbitrary thinking begins to flow through your mind. And each thought can only take you to one of two places: the past or the future. To the extent you engage, identify with, and ruminate on thoughts about the past, you will experience depression, and the time you spend in the future will inevitably produce anxiety.

The mind will never bring you to the present moment where all life exists. Where you can experience peace, joy, beauty, gratitude, and love. The mind is not required for such experiences (although it likes to feel important so it’ll keep inserting itself regardless). Thus, smoke and mirrors of thought may easily convince you to trade your serenity for some I’ll-be-happy-whens, thereby placing your joy just out of reach in a place that doesn’t actually exist — the future.

It’s also my experience that people are quick to attack those around them when they let their mind convince them of whatever hypothetical threat or injustice it imagines. When people get triggered, they instantaneously transport to a painful past or a painful future in which they must retaliate in order to protect themselves. No longer present, they fire off a critical you-statement, a “should,” an unreasonable demand, judgment, or accusation. And they do damage.

It’s like Marshal Rosenberg said (founder of Nonviolent Communication), “All violence is the result of people tricking themselves into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.” It’s not a stretch therefore to conclude that violence can only be committed in a dissociated state.

How The Mind Destroys Reality

Let’s say you’ve been planning to propose to your partner for a year. You designed the perfect ring, planned the perfect vacation, and handled all the details so you could share the most magical moment of pure love and presence with each other. Everything feels SO right. You stare deeply into each other’s eyes. Feeling super connected in the moment, you pop the question…

Your partner jumps back surprised, “Oh my God, hold on! Let me get my selfie stick! How does my hair look? Let’s get some good lighting in here. This is better. Ok, I’m recording. Start over from the beginning. I wanna capture this whole thing so I can share it with everyone I know on the internet.”

First of all, if this ever happens to you, I encourage you to postpone the engagement and reevaluate your life choices.

Secondly, I hope this illustrates the difference between being present and being identified with thoughts, ego, pride, perception, attachments, and false identity. The mind can only take you out of the present moment. Out of reality.

At any given moment, my life is absolutely wonderful and I have zero problems. But the second I climb up into my skull, I have access to all kinds of shame, judgment, comparison, worries, fears, and insecurities. All the problems in the world, right there at my fingertips.

The mind is the most powerful instrument of dissociation there is.

The Anesthesia of the Masses

An anesthesiologist recently explained to me that we have specific nerves that sense heat and tissue damage (nociception) and trigger an immediate defense response in the body. He said that pain, however, is a subjective interpretation of real or imagined harm by the mind. And so the way anesthesia works is that it essentially disconnects your body from your mind so you are no longer able to interpret what is happening as “painful.”

I was like, Hot dang! That’s exactly what dissociation does!

It’s a psychological anesthesia that disables our capacity to feel painful experiences in the present moment. Certainly, this can be extremely beneficial in many situations, but the drawback is that we often have no control over what we do in a dissociated state.

In fact, I would say that trying to change your life while dissociated is like trying to steer a car that you’re not even in.

This is why people have such a hard time stopping an addiction or bad habit. Whenever you do something compulsively, you are usually dissociated. One could argue that it’s not even you who is doing the behavior. On the contrary, it’s literally the absence of you that is doing the behavior! If you had the resources and ability to be present at that moment, perhaps you would have a choice in the matter.

The Power of Choice

In 1939, the book Alcoholics Anonymous was published, which, in my humble opinion, marks the very beginning of humanity’s attempt to understand and heal from trauma. In its pages, you will read:

“At a certain point in the drinking of every alcoholic, he passes into a state where the most powerful desire to stop drinking is of absolutely no avail. This tragic situation has already arrived in practically every case long before it is suspected. The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink. Our so-called willpower becomes practically nonexistent.”

Well… reasons ain’t so obscure anymore, Bill W. We now know that compulsive behavior is rooted in trauma and dissociation.

In the last hundred years, dozens of twelve-step fellowships have spun off from AA to tackle various substance and process addictions. All of them begin with the same first step — an admission of powerlessness (trauma) and unmanageability (a dysregulated nervous system). And the rest of the steps are geared toward resolving those issues.

*Disclaimer — I realize there are people who vehemently oppose twelve-step recovery, and I have exactly zero interest in debating its merits and shortcomings. If it works for you, awesome. If it doesn’t work for you, cool — go find some other shit. I’m simply sharing some historical context for the evolution of our understanding of compulsive self-destruction. I do not intend to imply endorsement or affiliation of any sort.

Getting Behind The Wheel of Your Life

Ok, cool story, bro. But how the hell am I supposed to extricate myself from an entire life built on trauma responses and coping mechanisms?

1. Needs

Well… first you have to get out of survival mode. Meaning you need to feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure. You have to get your fundamental human needs satisfied in healthy and sustainable ways (this activity can help). Without that, you’ll be doomed to a life of dissociated, lizard brain, 4F survival strategies.

YOU WILL NEED HELP DOING THIS. I have never seen, heard, or read about anyone just figuring this out on their own.

2. Community Support and Boundaries

You’ve gotta surround yourself with healthy, caring, supportive people, places, and things. I recommend joining some kind of healing tribe, therapeutic community, church fellowship, book study (or whatever) where you feel a sense of love and belonging. This also means you will have to “weed your garden” and cull the toxic influences in your life (this activity can help).

3. Presence

Then and only then will you even have the option to stop dissociating. But at this point, you may have a neural superhighway of habituated patterns of dissociation to reckon with. So you will need to intentionally cultivate presence, awareness, and mindfulness practices on a daily basis. This could include prayer, meditation, mantras, yoga, journaling, mindful breathing, grounding exercises, etc.

I know, this might sound like some new-age hippy bullshit to some of you. If that’s the case, check out Just One Thing by Rick Hanson for 52 practical exercises to cultivate mindfulness (based on neuroscience and psychology). You may also like 10% Happier by Dan Harris — a surprisingly hilarious book about meditation for the fidgety skeptic.

If you’re not afraid to venture into the place where psychology and spirituality overlap, Awareness by Anthony De Mello is just the book to tear down some limiting beliefs you may be unwittingly holding onto.

And if you’re ready to go full Dalai Lama status, scoop Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh. And don’t just read the book, practice the book.

Enjoy The Journey

Please don’t turn your personal development into just another I’ll-be-happy-when. Find ways to make it fun, and celebrate the small wins. Transforming your life isn’t an event, it’s a daily habit. And change, as Gandhi would tell you, also isn’t necessarily something you do but something you be.

Dissociation is not a symptom of trauma. Dissociation IS trauma.

And the opposite of dissociation is presence.

How cool is that?


I love your articles, Adam. Please don’t stop freely sharing your gifts with the world.

I love your articles, Adam. Please don’t stop freely sharing your gifts with the world.

I love your articles, Adam. Please don’t stop freely sharing your gifts with the world.

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*This article contains Amazon affiliate links to the books mentioned

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

4 thoughts on “Is Dissociation Behind All Your Problems?

  1. BOY HOWDY! Great post Adam! It so resonated with me. Your #3, first paragraph – EXACTLY. I have often envisioned my brain as a mountainside and all the neural pathways as well worn deer trails running down the sides. Less a superhighway than a regional park but with the same result. Making new pathways means trying new trails and if they work, going over them and over them. With any luck, the old trails will become to see used and unfamiliar.
    I’m working so hard (for so long) to improve my ability to be present at any given moment. I couldn’t agree with you more about trauma being part of the human experience. (We are humans, raised by humans; there is going to be some damage done). When I finally figured that out it actually helped me put down the pitchfork I’d been waving around for so long.
    Does anyone get out of this unscathed?…
    Please keep up the wonderful work. I feel seen.

    1. Thank you kindly, Dana. You’re right, no one makes it out of childhood with no bumps and bruises (or developmental trauma, haha)! And also, the pitchfork never helped me very much either. Happy to hear you are cutting some new trails, my friend. You keep up that wonderful work as well 🙂

  2. You always have a way of adding laughter with perfect comedic timing to your posts and for me, that is a very relatable way to get through understanding tough subjects. (IE if that ever happens to you…I encourage you to reevaluate your life’s choices🤣 funny yet true) Thank you for how you go about sharing your knowledge, wisdom and Insight. Not only through the gift of comedy but also with grace, honesty, truth, support and love💗

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