Life Doesn’t Feel Real Anymore: Dissociation in the Time of COVID-19
2020 has been a pretty surreal year. Many people have faced challenges that would have been unimaginable to them just one year ago and daily life looks nothing like it used to due to COVID-19 restrictions. Routines and patterns are how we keep track of information and time, so being thrown into a situation that you’ve never been in before can be disorienting, especially for those with mental health conditions who feel anchored by structure. Many people say the duration of the pandemic has felt like a time warp – days are blending together, and some months seem to fly by, while others feel never-ending. We’ve spent months stuck in the present moment and unable to plan for the future because there is no way to predict what each day would bring. You may be more hopeful now that vaccines are being approved, but if you still feel like the future doesn’t quite exist, you aren’t alone.
What is dissociation?
The circumstances that we’re in may trigger dissociation, a feeling like you are disconnected or detached from yourself and/or your surroundings. Dissociating is a natural response to high stress situations (especially trauma) and exists on a spectrum. Mild dissociation often looks like daydreaming or zoning out – like when you’re scrolling through social media and suddenly notice 4 hours have passed. More intense dissociation may feel like you are observing yourself from outside of your body (depersonalization) or that the world is unreal (derealization). Some people have a dissociative disorder as their primary diagnosis, but dissociation is also associated with many other mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder. Many people – up to 74 percent – will experience dissociation at some point in their life.[i] If you’re experiencing this detachment for the first time or more often than usual, it may be because of the increased stress of living in today’s world.
Why does dissociation happen?
Many different things can cause you to dissociate, like overwhelming stress, a traumatic event, or living with a mental health condition. Often, it is a subconscious way of coping by avoiding unpleasant and negative thoughts and feelings – disconnecting from the world around you can alleviate the fear and anxiety you’re experiencing. This is built into human functioning; our brains intentionally go into defense mode to protect us from situations that may otherwise be too overwhelming. But sometimes this system disconnects us to a greater degree than is helpful and makes it more difficult to get through the day.
There isn’t data yet on how the pandemic may be impacting rates or experiences of dissociation, but it’s likely that there is some connection. In 2020, Mental Health America’s Online Screening Program saw a massive increase in people taking anxiety and depression screens, and the number of people screening with moderate to severe symptoms is higher than rates prior to COVID-19.[ii] High stress and anxiety are known to trigger dissociation in some people. The loneliness and isolation that many people are feeling could be a contributor as well – feeling trapped is a common trigger, and even if you haven’t noticed before, interacting with other people on a regular basis plays a big role in keeping us connected to reality.
What does dissociation feel like during COVID-19?
Dissociation feels different for different people – it may be scary if everything suddenly seems unfamiliar, or it may feel like a welcome relief from the scariness of the real world. Because COVID-19 has turned our worlds upside-down, dissociation may set in easier than usual.
It’s normal to question if this is real life; today’s reality does seem pretty unreal at times. Feeling detached from your surroundings (your environment, people and objects around you, etc.) is called derealization. The world might actually look distorted to you – it can appear foggy, two-dimensional, cartoon-like, or colors may seem muted. Some people say it’s like there’s a glass wall in between them and other people; others describe it as feeling like other people are robots, even though you know they aren’t.
Depersonalization refers to when you feel detached from yourself. You may feel like you’re watching yourself in a movie or floating above your physical body. For some, it’s like your body is on autopilot and you’re going through the day without any control over what you say, do, or feel. It’s common to feel unconnected to your body, mind, emotions, or even physical sensations while dissociating.
What can I do about it?
Dissociating isn’t inherently dangerous, but it can be uncomfortable. If you notice that you’re feeling disconnected, there are several ways to bring yourself back when it’s safe to do so.
- Grounding can help you get out of your head and reconnect with the world around you. A popular grounding technique is to surprise one (or more!) of your five senses: dip your hands in ice water (touch), bite into a lemon (taste), or smell something strong, like essential oils or an orange peel. You can find more grounding exercises to try out here.
- Talk to others – they are experiencing life during COVID-19 too. You don’t even have to tell them about your dissociation if you don’t want to; just talking with someone about what’s happening can validate for you that yes, this is real life, and yes, this feels completely surreal.
- Add routine to your life. Anchor your day with certain time rituals, like having your coffee at the same time daily, going on a walk during lunch each day, and sticking to a regular wind-down routine at night. Balance that with keeping your work/school days different from other days – planning fun (and safe) activities to do during the weekends goes a long way in disrupting that sense of sameness.
- Get outside every day, even if some days all you can handle is three deep breaths of fresh air before going back inside. It will remind you that the world is bigger than your COVID-19-safe bubble.
If you find yourself “out of it” for a while, that’s okay – it’s an appropriate response to a really difficult situation that many of us are facing. Managing your stress and anxiety with coping skills can reduce how often and intensely you dissociate. If you’re worried that it may be a symptom of another mental health condition, take a screen and talk to your doctor, therapist, or other mental health professional. If you are feeling completely disconnected and are unsure of where you are, who you are, or if you’re safe, seek emergency help by calling your doctor, 911, or going to your local emergency room.
[i] Hunter, E.C.M., Sierra, M., & David, A. S. (2004). The epidemiology of depersonalization and derealization: A systematic review. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 39(1). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15022041/
[ii] Mental Health America. 2020. COVID-19 and mental health: A growing crisis. https://mhanational.org/sites/default/files/Spotlight%202021%20-%20COVID-19%20and%20Mental%20Health.pdf