We all experience times when we drift off—those “Wait, what’d I just miss?” moments. With bipolar and increased stress, I’ve found this happening more frequently than I’d like. Here’s how I’m countering dissociation with self-grounding techniques.
Did I Miss?
binge-watching a great Netflix show yesterday when, all of a sudden, I realized
I had no idea what happened in the scene I’d just watched. I’ve experienced
this before. I’ve read and re-read paragraphs in books, unable to grasp what
was going on with the characters. It felt like the words were just hieroglyphic
symbols on the page in front of me. They had no meaning. I liken this feeling
to what happens if I repeat the same word over and over again out loud until it
doesn’t sound like a real word anymore.
Confusion, and Dissociation
are unprecedented times. My life, my job, and my relationships have all been
upended, and everything feels surreal; like I’m living in a postapocalyptic
sci-fi movie. I’m disoriented, scared, and confused. It’s traumatic. This
crisis has been so overwhelming that—without me realizing it—I’ve been
disconnecting from myself. I’m dissociating.
it’s not the best way to handle this stress and anxiety, it’s understandable.
I’m falling back on a tried-and-true (though unhealthy) coping mechanism, so I
can survive the current crisis intact.
something happens that’s too big to wrap my head around, or too frightening to absorb,
my mind just turns off, and I shut down. It’s like my brain drifts into the
wild blue yonder, until I snap back into reality. And I find myself well,
finding myself. It’s a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—minus
to “post” part, since we’re still in the middle of this mess.
Disorder, Memory Loss, and Trauma
I often struggle with memory loss and dissociation. My dad—who also had bipolar disorder—battled suicidality until his death in April 1998. I went into shock. I lost all memory of the rest of that year. I saw a therapist once every two weeks for six months at a counseling center for survivors; but, for the life of me, I can’t recall any of my 12 sessions.
didn’t react to this trauma for four years. I didn’t even cry. I completely dissociated.
It was too much for me to face, so my instincts kicked in and numbed me. Then,
in 2002, I suffered a complete breakdown. I cried for four days straight. I
couldn’t drive. I lost my appetite. My brain felt like it had turned black and
oozed out of my ears.
Hyperfocus, and Losing Myself in My Work
doesn’t just happen when I’m upset, stressed, and coping with trauma. It may
sound “weird,” but I’m naturally capable of forgetting I have a body. Sometimes,
when I’m focused on completing a project at work, I can get so engrossed in
what I’m doing that I forget to eat. Then it hits me at dinner that I’m having
my first meal of the day.
I’m doing something I love—like painting—I often lose track of time. My left
arm gets so sore from repetitive motion that it goes to sleep and wakes back up
again, jolting me into the moment with the uncomfortable tingling feeling of pins
and needles under my skin.
Present to Protect My Mental Health
frightened by the idea of dissociating for an extended period of time again. I
don’t want my feelings to build up like a slowly solidifying ball of toxic
sludge. Because my emotions will come out eventually, and they won’t be pretty.
that I’m aware of it, I’ve been working hard to stay grounded, or aware of what’s
happening in the here and now. I can keep myself from dissociating by existing
in the present moment. That will prevent any lasting damage.
Practice Self-Grounding to Manage Dissociation
I ground myself is simple. It doesn’t involve hours of meditating (because
that’s challenging for me) or taking mindfulness classes or doing yoga
(although that helps).
easy exercise I repeat as often as I need to, every time I find my mind
floating off again. I can do this anywhere, anytime. It’s all about paying
attention to my body, grounding myself physically so I can be at peace mentally.
Awareness to My Physical Presence
I start by acknowledging that I have a body. It may seem strange, but I need to
do that; otherwise, none of the rest of it works. I close my eyes and remind
myself that I am not just my own brain. I have arms, legs, skin, organs, and
teeth. I focus on specific parts of my physical being, recognizing that I am a
living creature made of many important elements.
Focus to My Breathing
I become aware that I’m breathing in and out. I breathe so I can live, and I’m grateful to be alive right now. I take a deep breath in and feel the air filling my lungs. I notice my heart beating. I concentrate on the cool, refreshing air entering my chest. I slowly release the air, and I notice the sensation of letting go.
exhale, I let some of the stress I’ve been feeling spill out and dissipate into
the air around me. And then some of my anxiety is released. I’m no longer unknowingly
clinging to it. I realize I’ve stopped clenching my teeth and furrowing my brow
like I do when I’m in pain.
the Earth Beneath Me
I notice the support of whatever I’m sitting on or lying on. I detect what it
feels like to have my weight supported by the earth and gravity. If I’m sitting
in a chair, I focus on the sensation that my back is held up as I lean against
it. I shift my focus to my feet. I sense them touching the floor. I explore the
sensation of each toe resting on the flat surface. I turn my attention to my
hands. I become aware of each finger resting against the arms of the chair. Then
I silently thank the earth for giving me structure, strength, and balance.
This exercise may seem or feel “weird” at first, but, lately, I’ve found it immensely helpful. The more I practice this grounding technique, the calmer I feel. By doing this regularly, I’m dissociating less and less frequently. I now have a stronger foundation, so it’s getting easier to handle the daily uneasiness of the world around me. I can repeat this as much as feels good.
The Importance of Touch & Awareness of Our Physical Nature
days, we are all experiencing touch deprivation. Shaking hands is no longer an
acceptable form of greeting. Hugs are a no-no. I’m not even in the same room
with anyone other than my partner, whom I live with. We are in a new era of
less physical contact. As a result, it’s now even easier to forget my corporeal
had to become physically distant from friends and family to protect myself and
others by flattening the curve. This new way of existing leaks over into the
way we relate to ourselves. We need to take the time now, more than ever, to be
in touch with our own bodies. We need to take care of ourselves. We need to
The best way I’ve found to do that is to continually practice self-awareness and mindfulness through grounding techniques. I hope you find this simple exercise useful, and you’re able to join me in my ongoing journey of healing and recovery.
Carrie Cantwell is an Emmy-nominated film industry graphic designer with bipolar disorder. She grew up with a dad who had bipolar and whom she lost to suicide. She has written a book entitled Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir, about how accepting her diagnosis taught her to forgive her dad and herself. Her blog is Darkness & Light.
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