Hyper awareness, Dissociative Process/ disappearing within

We spend much of our lives on auto- pilot.   Are you generally aware of what is going on around you or are you self absorbed and unaware? Are you able to read a book in the middle of a ball game or a busy airport?  Do you have the power to just “go away” somewhere within yourself?  It is normal to not notice every little thing going on.  Many of us do not notice changes and we do not make good witnesses to sudden events which surprise us.   Others are hyper-vigilant, and notice everything that goes on around them.  They are constantly scanning the environment for signs of danger.

I have long been interested in the function of habituation and sensory adaptation.  It is my belief that these processes are both blessing and curse. Remember when you first learned to tie your shoes? It took intense concentration and practice. My oldest child sat on the couch and cried for nearly an hour when I finally said if you don’t tie your shoe you can’t get off the couch. Then when he accepted the truth (not to mention the unfairness) of that command, he tied his shoes. (Remember, being fair is not in the job description for dads.) Today, at forty, he can tie them, chew gum, and watch TV while he talks on the phone, all at the same time. The reason he can do this, is habituation and practice. My younger son, who is fifteen, just wears Velcro fasteners, or slip-ons of some kind.  The point here is that when you first attempt to acquire a skill, you have to think about it, rehearse it, and practice it.  It takes consciousness, concentration, and focus.  As you improve your ability to perform the skill it habituates, requiring less and less focus and attention.  It becomes automatic. This ranges from things as simple as tying a shoe to things as complex as a belief system to which you have become indoctrinated.

If you have to think about someone, notice them, and evaluate them as individuals, that takes time, energy, and attention.  IF you can just label them as part of a category you can stereotype them and classify them automatically as part of a group about which you already have an opinion.  This automated (habituated) process can refer to occupations (teachers, doctors, cops, priests) to genders or sexual orientations, races, or religions. This ability to generalize saves us time and energy. We don’t have to think, we don’t have to notice, we don’t have to choose.  We can just react in our conditioned way with our conditioned beliefs.

This human skill is useful and necessary.  It is cheaper in terms of energy and time consumed if you can generalize.  If you have to perform a total evaluation every time you go deal with same thing, it costs a lot. I learn each time that I touch the hot stove I will get burned, I can then generalize that if I touch the fireplace with fire, I will also get burned.   We automate these conclusions to save energy for new or different things. Things we have to figure out and solve because they are new to us take time, so being able to generalize is an efficient process.

What about people who do not have the ability to do this? Those who are hyper-vigilant, who constantly scan and have difficulty relaxing? Who are they, why are they the way they are?  Most of the people I have met with this pattern are trauma survivors of some kind.  Most likely when they were young, they encountered some very frightening and traumatizing experience.  They learned that they were in danger and they must constantly scan the event horizon for signs of new danger.  In order to minimize the cost of the danger, they had to be aware and alert at all times. They often do not sleep soundly and have trouble relaxing because their minds are on full alert all the time. This is exhausting.  But, it is another sign of the adaptive nature of human beings. Many people can learn to be focused and alert on demand (like soldiers in combat) but as soon as the danger passes, they revert to auto pilot and reestablish the ability to drift along.  The trauma survivor has a great difficulty going off duty.  They cannot calm down and stop being acutely aware of their surroundings.

Watch people driving around or walking in the mall.  They may be singing to themselves or having conversations with themselves.  They may have a dull blank, unconnected look in their eyes and show no emotion on their face.  Their concentration is elsewhere, usually inward, and they seem to be a million miles away.  They count on their unconscious system to notice and alert them when required attending becomes necessary.  They would be aware of the police siren, someone just calling their name, the phone ringing, or the crashing sound of breaking glass.

Some people who have experienced trauma learn to be dissociative, this is a process of learning to go away.  In other words, “the lights are on, but no one is home.”  This is one way trauma survivors learn to survive.  When they cannot physically escape some pain or some danger, they just go away inside themselves. They dissociate from themselves and their awareness of the event which is happening.  Usually they learn this skill as a way to endure repetitive assaults, though it can be one trial learning if the stimulus is harsh enough.  They generalize or globalize this skill and learn to go away whenever anything unpleasant or uncomfortable begins to happen.  They can still function, such as making change, carrying on a conversation, or driving a car.  They are physically, but not emotionally present. They have escaped into some other place, or identity.

When therapists encounter the dissociative process, we begin to gently point it out to the client.  In this situation, I might suggest that we think the client is on autopilot and not really experiencing the discussion or the event we are dealing with.  I observe that their physical reactions do not match the story they are sharing.  Perhaps, the story is sad but they do not look sad or the story is frightening, but they do not show the emotion of fear, or the story should evoke anger, but they do not seem angry. As the therapist, it is a bit subjectively like listening to the radio. The vibrancy of a present person is absent from the conversation.  It is as if the client and you do not exist.  They are just automatically talking but the words do not convey meaning.  The client is usually unaware of this as it is happening.

One of the skills for beginning to confront the dissociative process is to identify that the client has gone away and ask them if they are aware of it.  Usually they will say no. The therapist reflects back specific behavioral cues which change during this process and identifies them to the client.  Normally, the client will say, “No, that did not happen. You are wrong.”  The therapist might say, “OK, help me learn about you.  It has been my experience that when someone appears to go away during a conversation it means that they have touched on something that is difficult for them.  But you tell me that when you do it, it does not mean this.  I accept that.  I want to understand how you think. When I perceive this as happening, can I ask about it and point it out?  That way I can learn to hear you accurately and experience you accurately.  My ultimately goal is to hear and experience you with validity.”

The client will usually hear this in a non-threatening way and agree.  As the therapist continues gently and softly pointing out specific behaviors, (not accusatively, aha I caught you now!) the client begins to recognize that they are, indeed, changing into or out of contact with a conversation or experience.  Once they have begun to notice, they often say “I just did it, didn’t I?”  The therapist may ask, what was the last thing you heard, felt, or remember, before you went away?  What we are doing is looking for the triggers that identify the trauma.  Then the client can begin to heal from the trauma and learn to be safe even while they are connected, as opposed to hiding.  The hyper-acute vigilance begins to diminish, because the client learns to reality test.  The goal is to be in contact with reality. This means to be able to assess real and present risks and dangers, to feel, and to be in the present moment.  Eventually, the client can go on auto-pilot, and not escape into dissociative process, but rather to become more efficient in energy consumption. We want the client to be more like those who have not suffered from trauma. The client can be alert on demand or need, but not constantly over alert nor constantly disengaged as their only way to be safe.

Gradually by using these skills for identifying the dissociative process and teaching the client to stay in reality and to consciously know risk and danger, the client can heal from trauma. Watching this happen is a beautiful thing. It is joyful to be part of helping someone heal from something so devastating and debilitating.


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15 Responses to Hyper awareness, Dissociative Process/ disappearing within

  1. Jon Domachowski says:

    Excellent points Brett!!! Having a full caseload of children who have experienced complex trauma I ‘see’ what you discuss occurring throughout my day as I work with these children. I really liked your analogy about it feeling like a radio station is on instead of two people having a conversation. I notice and feel that a lot, especially in the beginning months of treatment for our tramatized children. Love your blog Brett! Please keep them coming!!

  2. Jon Domachowski says:

    Sorry for the double post Brett, but upon processing your article a bit more I had a question you might be able to help me out on 🙂 What are your recommendations for dealing with dissociation in young children (under 10) who are also co-morbidly trying to deal with multiple symptoms (usually hypervigilance, hyperarousal, intrusive thoughts, and avoidance)? I ask this because I feel that some children on my caseload are developmentally far enough along to ‘get it’ when the topic of dissociation comes up, but I have several other client’s who are very young or just simply don’t have even the basic coping skills to get through their days yet, especially my client’s who have experienced multiple complex interpersonal trauma over a several year period. Thanks so much Brett!!!

    Jon Domachowski, MA, PLPC
    Children’s Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Jon I think your question is an excellent one. What I would suggest is that with the younger children you remember to triage the symptoms. Work on teaching them calming and self soothing strategies and how to implement them. Teach them about safe places and how to go there. Think about transitional objects (read this weeks blog when it gets posted). they can learn how to stabilize themselves with your help and that will also help them reduce the need to be dissociative. What I tell my older clients is that we will never take away skills that make them safe, we will add new skills so that they increase their choice matrix. But with younger clients, I do not intellectualize as much. I just teach them the skills. Good luck

  3. Pilar says:

    Fine put up, I am checking back again on a regular to look for up-grades.

  4. Jon Domachowski says:

    Thanks Brett! That was incredibly helpful, as well as your recent blog on transitional objects.


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  6. Thank you for posting this useful post. My good luck…

  7. Diane Walker says:

    Hi, My friends son has a lot of the symptoms you mention. Please can you tell me some treatments or coping strategies because that is where we are at now. Please help, Diane.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      If your son’s friend truly has these symptoms, this can be very serious and usually indicates the need for outside professional help. There are things, which I have discussed about how people normally distance themselves from painful stimmuli. We all learn how to protect ourselves with coping skills. Being able to dissociate is certainly something that everyone does some. The more completely we dissociate and the more complex out dissociative process is, however, the more I would recommend professional help. I would suggest you encourage your friend to find a therapist who is knowledgable about dissociative process and hypervigilance. Do not try to deal with these things yourself, it takes a great deal of skill and care.

  8. DeAnna says:

    Good evening. I’m 32 and I’ve just realized what all these feelings were. There are times, and it’s mostly if I’ve been staying at home a lot by myself, that I feel like I’m being watched or something. I get a burning heated sensation that goes all throughout my body starting from my chest and it goes down to my toes in like a “laser”sort of way. Then tarts when I start “panicking”, I guess is what I’d call it. I get nauseated and just… Panicky. Then during this, I have to lay down after taking a cold shower (bringing me back to reality) and watch something that “happy” or a comedy. I never knew how to tell or explain this to anyone. Is that the “hyper awareness”thing? Please help me understand this.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      DeAnna: Thank you for writing. You did not give me any information about your history. I don’t know if you have a trauma or abuse history, that would make a difference in my response. What I would recommend is that you go to a physician you trust and share with them your physical symptoms. Make sure first that these do not indicate any illness. If your physician does not think there are physical causes for your symptoms, I would recommend going to a good therapist and begin to have conversations about what you have shared with me. You obviously are experiencing anxiety symptoms (absent some physical cause), these symptoms could be caused by the kind of hyper- vigilance I am describing in this blog. These symptoms can be terrifying and crippling if they are not dealt with. They will get worse. You may have a dissociative history or you may not. You need to talk to your doctor and a good therapist. Good luck and thanks again for writing.

  9. annie says:

    I was ready this to see if this relates to autism. Do you have any tips for parents who have children with autism. Mainly how to guide them into a good place? Especially how to guide them with out complex verbal institutions. My family and many other families would be interested I think.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Thank you for your question. I am sorry to say that I do not have any specific suggestions for families with autistic children. I agree with the implication of your question that there may be some overlapping kinds of skill sets that appear similar to dissociative process and how to cope with it, but I would hesitate to expostulate about them because it is not my area of expertise. I am much more comfortable talking about what I think I know with regard to people who are hyper-vigilant because of their trauma histories resulting from physical or emotional abuse. I don’t feel that if I were to offer any suggestions it would have any more credibility than any other interested party because I lack that specialized knowledge focus.

  10. Sara says:

    Hello Brett,
    I am a MFT counselor in training and am wondering if you can suggest good references for learning more about dissociation and hypervigilance in clinical practice. I often see references to dissociation in trauma literature but relatively little on how to recognize dissociation that is not of the “dissociative identity disorder” variety. You describe the sense of the client “going away,” which is helpful. But do you have ideas for where I can get an even clearer idea of how to identify this “going away” and to tell the difference between more common forms of spacing out or wandering attention and dissociation?
    Thanks and best,

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Sara you asked a great question. To my knowledge there is nothing in the professional literature for counseling that describes the behaviors you are asking about. There is literature in the field of non verbal behaviors that can help you begin to attune yourself to the nuances of non verbal expression. When you become somewhat sensitized to shifts and redirections that can happen non verbally, you can begin to point those out to the client and ask if they are aware of them and if they mean anything. The client will usually say “no, I was just crossing my legs”. As a clinician you never challenge that you just say “ok, I am really trying to hear you on every channel and this helps me to understand all that you are saying. Do you mind if I continue to ask about behaviors I see but don’t understand and you can help me?” They will always say yes.

      What begins to happen then is that their own consciousness begins to track their nuance moves or blinks or shifts and they begin to recognize them, then you can ask about them and they will have an “aha” reaction of understanding and there will be a breakthrough for them and for you.

      Another thing you can do is ask” it feels as if you just went somewhere or went away, did you?” Always accept their answer. This is a slow and evolutionary exploration of their defenses, it is never a show of your intelligence or skills. Invite them to be safe, invite them to become aware and remind them that they will not remember until they are strong enough to handle whatever they remember. They cannot know until they can afford to know. Trust yourself and develop your own skills, but gently gently explore what you see, feel, or hear between the lines.

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