We all dissociate sometimes.
Psychotherapist Jonathan Marshall tried some relaxing dissociation techniques with me recently. He told me to think of myself floating to a place I found comforting. Over 15 minutes or so, he got me to believe my arm was weighed down by a bucket of water, and I couldn't prise my hands away from each other.
Marshall bridges clinical psychology, coaching, and leadership with his clients, and he specialises in something called "trance states." A common form of a trance state is when you've been driving along and suddenly you realise you've been paying no attention to the route you've taken.
"We call that highway hypnosis," Marshall said. "Where you're not aware that you just overtook three cars or three cars overtook you. Your mind is focused on whatever it may be focused on — the day's work. But then if someone crossed the road and was in danger, your unconscious would fire to your conscious and say 'come here now,' and you would suddenly be focused in the here and now."
We spend a lot of our time dissociated, according to Marshall. Our minds can take off in stressful situations, accidents, or sometimes for no real reason at all.
There are several different theories for why we do it, none of which are the favourite. But what is certain is that trance states can be beneficial.
"For example, you're in an accident, and you've broken your collar bone," he said. "You get out of the car, you help your child out of the car, and you feel fine. Half an hour later, you realise 'oh my god I've broken my collar bone.'"
Apparently this happens with footballers a lot — they don't realise they have a significant injury until they come off the pitch.
Dissociating from your body and dissociating from pain can be helpful if you need the adrenaline rush to help you get out of a dangerous situation, Marshall said. Like when someone small and relatively weak picks up a car after an accident to save their child, that's them going into a trance state.
But dissociating can be bad for us if we indulge in it too much.
For example, one woman Marshall was treating got into the habit of dissociating for hours at a time. She was having a tough time at work with a particularly demoralising boss. She would get home and sit on her bed and dissociate for around six hours.
She would imagine she was sitting on a beach in Hawaii, while her kids would go unfed, and her house uncleaned.
Dissociating this way is actually a skill, she just wasn't implementing it effectively. Marshall worked with her to enable her to use her vivid imagination to picture a forcefield whenever her boss was being nasty. Then whatever swipes he took at her would appear as poisoned arrows, which would bounce off the forcefield and incinerate.
It would make her smile, Marshall said. It sounds childish, but it meant she no longer had to mentally escape for the entire evening when she got home.
Trance states can be used very effectively for pain, by reducing the pain to a tingling sensation. It's important for the patient not to believe the pain is gone altogether, Marshall said, as this can lead them to put too much strain on the area, and cause injury.
It can also be successful in helping people during childbirth, aiding those with mental trauma, and improving the performance of athletes.
"I remember one guy gave himself a codeword... let's call it 'the little tiger,'" Marshall said. "He would say the phrase 'the little tiger' and he would feel this roaring strength inside him."
This athlete would get far in competitions, but when it came to getting a title, he would lose. His girlfriend said she was worried because it was really affecting his ego, and he might stop fighting if he couldn't get over the mental block.
In one particular fight, the commentators were saying he was losing. Then out of nowhere, he came out with a punch that knocked his opponent out. In the interview afterwards, he was asked how he did it, and he said that a little tiger came into his head.
"I looked at him and thought 'he self-hypnotised,'" Marshall said. "He used his codephrase, and he didn't even know he was doing it, but he was able to give himself that boost of energy."
Dissociation can go too far, such as with the woman who went to the beach in her head for entire evenings. Also, with dissociative identity disorder (DID), people have grown up with a severe trauma, and their minds dissociate from it as a form of self-protection.
With this rare condition, people don't know how to shut off their mind's escape, and they can even develop entirely separate personalities, which is why it's sometimes referred to as having a split personality. There's no easy cure for DID, but people live fulfilled and normal lives with their multiple personalities once they know how to deal with them.
Everyone dissociates to some extent, and Mashall said it's important to escape when we need to, but you don't want to do it in lieu of experiencing real life.
"Sometimes we need to escape. You had a bad day with the boss, you want to come home and read a book, play a video game, whatever it is, you just get absorbed with something that helps you take the edge off the day," he said. "But I think when we do that to the extent where we damage our relationships, damage our capacity to work, we become less effective at living our lives... then it's backfiring."