“I don’t feel pain” – Exploring dissociation as a reason why not

You meet all sorts of people whilst out dog walking.

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I met a man today who was wearing a jacket and shorts and trainers. I know it is now officially March – but I was wearing  a T-shirt, hoodie, and fleece. I also had a woolly hat, jeans, thick socks and warm walking boots. The gauge in my car said 5 degrees. It snowed 2 days ago, and today I felt appropriately dressed. The way the wind was whipping across the open spaces, I was very glad I had my hat.

 

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So back to the man in shorts.

First time we passed, we smiled.

Second time we passed I had to speak to him. He assured me he was absolutely fine in shorts. He never wears anything else – even in ‘-5’. He spent many of his working years (he is now retired) living abroad and wearing shorts. He doesn’t feel the cold…it’s all in your head. He doesn’t feel any pain either – that’s in your head too.

He went on to tell me about his recent triple heart by-pass, and how when he came round he didn’t have pain – didn’t need any pain killers. But because the nurses were so insistent that he should be in pain (and everyone else on the ward was making lots of fuss about the pain in their chests) he gave in and told them ‘if it will make you feel better you can give me some paracetamol’. They did. The tablets ended up under his bed… 😉

And it got me thinking. This highly eloquent gentleman, was very clear in his attitude towards pain : he doesn’t feel it and that was a source of pride. Whilst I do agree there is a huge amount of power in our minds that we can use to change how we relate to pain, I wondered if he knew the other explanation as to why people don’t feel pain in their bodies.

 

THE OTHER EXPLANATION

Dissociation is a powerful survival technique that we all have at our disposal. A way to manage our selves when we are in overwhelming situations that are causing us high levels of physical or emotional pain, whether they are life threatening or not.

Out-of-body-experiences‘ whilst being sexually abused are a common expression of dissociation during trauma at any age. Children learn to dissociate if they are living through any kind of abuse. They often dissociate if they a living with domestic violence or other frightening scenarios in their homes. They often find that the only way to cope is to separate their mind away from their body. They stop paying attention to what is happening in reality right now – and go somewhere else in their heads. And it is not a conscious choice. It is how our subconscious helps us survive. And it is not just children.

As a society, it was not that long ago that we inadvertently encouraged our children to learn to dissociate. Little boys, who were brought up with the ‘boys don’t cry’ message, learnt to deny and disconnect from pain because it wasn’t ok to have it – but it hurt. Those little boys are still living among us as dads and Granddads…

Children who cut themselves with scissors or fall over, are bleeding but don’t notice, may well be exhibiting an indicator that they have learnt not to be fully connected with their body and all its sensations. Those children who can’t seem to tell the difference between fact and fantasy may be needing their fantasy to be real because it is safer than their actual reality. Adults can do the same – or different.

Other indicators of dissociation I have seen in children and my adult clients (parents and professionals – all intelligent lovely people) include:-

  • not having feeling in their hands / feet / or head
  • being avid fiction readers 
  • phasing out when talking
  • not hearing when I am talking to them
  • not being able to notice when they are hungry / thirsty
  • not noticing when they need the toilet
  • ‘floating away into a nice place’ when doing yoga, meditating or even in the midst of a horrible situation

NB – this is not a diagnostic list of symptoms.

Just some of the particular elements of dissociation that people have incorporated into their lives and think are normal.

 

Dissociation is normal – it is normal and natural to become dissociated automatically when we are severely threatened. 

It is not a normal state to be in daily. 

Talking with my new friend made me curious. I would have loved to find out more about him and what he had been through in his life. If I see him again soon, one thing is certain, he’ll be easy to spot in his shorts.

 

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Let’s Keep Talking

If you have any experiences of being dissociated yourself, noticing it in others, noticing it in children you are around I’d love to hear them. Similarly feel free to pop me any questions you may have about it in the comments below or here.