Dissociation: Step Out of the Bullseye

Robert F Mullen, PhD

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The distinction between social anxiety disorder and social anxiety is a matter of severity; reference to one includes the other. The recovery tools and techniques provided are applicable to most emotional malfunctions including depression, substance abuse, ADHD, PTSD, generalized anxiety, and issues of self-esteem and motivation. These malfunctions originate homogeneously, their trajectories differentiated by environment, experience, and the diversity of human thought and behavior. 

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Dissociation: Step Out of the Bullseye

Unhealthy or negative coping mechanisms are called defense mechanisms – temporary safeguards against situations we find difficult to manage. Defense mechanisms are mostly unconscious psychological responses that protect us from our fears and anxieties. At one time or another, we all use defense mechanisms. Dissociation, or stepping out of the bullseye, is a useful defense mechanism in recovery.

Coping Mechanisms

Coping mechanisms are tools and techniques that we utilize to moderate stress and reduce the neurotransmissions of our fear and anxiety-provoking hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. There are recovery coping mechanisms we employ when exposing ourselves to a feared situation, including distractions, and projected positive outcomes. There are those we turn to when confronted by sudden unexpected stresscontrolled breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and slow talk.

There are hundreds of coping mechanisms that make stressful situations in life easier to handle, including yoga, dancing, meditation, painting, writing, and streaming a movie. These activities moderate the anxiety of the moment and reduce the flow of those pesky chemical hormones. Coping mechanisms are as varied as individual experience and imagination.

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It is important to remain mindful, however, coping and defense mechanisms do not address the unresolved issues of our fears and anxieties. They are temporary ways to moderate stress and the influx of cortisol and adrenaline. Like an analgesic to relieve the pain of a physical condition, they do not address the cause and remedy of the ailment. Notwithstanding, even a temporary emotional balm has a positive impact on our emotional well-being and helps regenerate our self-esteem.

Defense Mechanisms

Any unconscious mental process that protects us from threats to our emotional well-being and sense of self is a defense mechanism. Cognitive distortions are defense mechanisms. Some, like avoidance, humor, isolation, and intellectualization need no explanation. Other defense mechanisms have positive benefits as well when used appropriately. Accordingly, they become tools in our recovery. 

Compensation is one example: We compensate for our negative thoughts and behaviors by replacing them with healthy, productive ones. We compensate for our low self-esteem by becoming mindful of our character strengths, virtues, and achievements. 

Ritual and undoing is subjectively undoing negative behaviors or impulses by performing rituals or actions designed to offset them. For example, a person might donate to a homeless shelter to make up for evicting low-income tenants to build a condominium. Substance abuse is a common but extreme example of ritual and undoing

Utilized appropriately, ritual and undoing is a valuable coping mechanism. It supports negative to positive neural restructuring (ritual) by replacing (undoing) our negative thoughts and behaviors with positive ones. 

Most defense mechanisms can be converted to coping mechanisms once we begin to recognize them when they materialize. This allows us to respond rationally, adapting them to support healthy behaviors. Projection and rationalization are two examples of this adaptation. Rationalizing to justify bad behavior is a defense mechanism that, when utilized to logically respond to our SAD-provoked fears, becomes a coping mechanism. Projecting our irrational behaviors onto others is a good way to observe ourselves as others see us. Some, like cognitive distortions, are generally detrimental to our emotional integrity and less adaptable to positive reconstruction. Dissociation, on the other hand, is a prime example of a defense mechanism that is useful in recovery.

In standard psychological terms, dissociation is a disconnect from reality to shield us from traumatic experiences. In theory, our mind unconsciously shuts down or represses emotionally conflicting thoughts, memories, or experiences. Daydreaming or streaming television to block discord in the next room is a harmless form of dissociation. Creating multiple personalities (DID) is at the other end of the spectrum.

While some experts may find fault with my use of the objective, its definition supports our utilization. Dissociation is a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of self. When our sense of self is that of a SAD person, then deliberate and voluntary disconnecting or severing from that sense is positively functional. Furthermore, the broad spectrum of dissociation encompasses both daydreaming and a disconnect from reality, so the concept is interpretational.

In recovery, we deliberately dissociate ourselves from the symptoms of our social anxiety disorder. We redefine ourselves by our character strengths, virtues, and attributes rather than by the adversities of our malfunction. Essentially, we subvert the disease model of mental health by adopting the wellness model. The disease or pathographic perspective focuses on the problemthe wellness or positive psychology model emphasizes the solution, defining health as a state of physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

To iterate the oft-used analogy: when we break out leg, we do not become the injured limb. We are simply someone experiencing a broken leg. The same concept is important to recovery from our emotional malfunction.

Stepping Out of the Bullseye

While we remain conjoined with our social anxiety disorder, we continue to view ourselves as helpless, hopeless, undesirable, and worthless. These core and intermediate beliefs are formed by childhood disturbance and sustained by our emotional malfunction. By dissociating ourselves from our condition, we remove ourselves from the bullseye allowing us to objectively analyze our thoughts or behaviors, and respond rationally and productively. 

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