If you feel disconnected help is on the way.
When I was in nine-years-old, a teacher whipped a piece of chalk at my head.
Since that was considered an effective motivational tool back then, if an adult male teacher felt like throwing a piece of chalk at a little girl, he just did it.
He beaned me right in the side of the face from across the room (I've got to hand it to him, he had good aim).
He thought I was daydreaming.
I still remember the sting that jolted me from my mental cocoon, followed by hot waves of humiliation.
If that had been the whole story, it would've been bad enough, but it wasn't.
Because I wasn't daydreaming.
I don't blame him, though - for not knowing - I didn't know it either.
I was an accident-prone and inattentive child, and I spent a lot of my early life in the emergency room.
I thought I just had what people call "bad luck."
I assumed I was just anxious and out-of-it, and I didn't function as normal people seemed to.
I couldn't concentrate or sleep, and I spent a lot of time in a mental fog, but I just thought I was just a freak.
Whenever I'd get stressed, my mind would go numb, and I'd sort of float above myself.
This was how I operated, so I did my best to get by, and as I got older, I learned to self-medicate to dull the shame and confusion.
I entered therapy in my early twenties, assuming I had a broken brain and cross-wired emotions.
I didn't know the daydreaming that ruined my young life wasn't a problem I was born with.
That "daydreaming" was a symptom of PTSD.
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder.
It's a mental health condition brought about by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event.
Symptoms can include:
- Severe anxiety
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Memory problems, including repressed memories
- Difficulty with close relationships
- Trouble experiencing positive emotions
- Emotional numbness
- Self-destructive habits (drinking too much/driving too fast)
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Irritation/angry outbursts/aggressive behavior
- Overwhelming guilt/shame
I was a textbook case due to a trauma I suffered when I was about four, combined with a highly stressful childhood.
When my first therapist explained what PTSD and disassociation were, it was like a light went on.
Disassociation is a symptom of PTSD where you can feel like you're:
- Having an out-of-body experience
- Somebody totally different at times
- Light-headed or your heart is pounding
- Emotionally numb/detached
- Unable to experience pain
- Experiencing time weirdly
- Having tunnel vision
- Hearing voices in your head
- Having flashbacks that feel real
- Feeling paralyzed
These were all things I'd felt cursed by - I couldn't believe it had a name.
My life suddenly made sense.
I realized I wasn't crazy or a loser. Instead, it was a side effect of the things that shaped me in childhood.
That diagnosis allowed me to release the shame and a lot of the anxiety that had always dogged me.
And now scientists have discovered the brain circuits that cause the "daydream" effect of disassociation so common among trauma survivors.
It's so common, in fact, that three out of four people who suffer trauma will experience it.
For most, it fades after few weeks.
But for the few who develop PTSD, it can become a persistent, reoccurring problem.
Because very little is known about the mechanics of disassociation, producing a reliable treatment has been challenging.
But researchers have now identified a specific group of cells associated with dissociation, which could lead to better-targeted therapies for PTSD, borderline personality disorder, and epilepsy.
Scientists discovered this connection while treating a patient with epilepsy who reported feeling disassociated beforehand.
They managed to pinpoint the seizure's source by recording electrical activity in the brain before episodes.
They discovered a specific pattern of electrical activity within the patient's posteromedial cortex.
This part of the brain is involved in regulating:
- Blood pressure
- Heart rate.
As well as controlling psychological functions such as executive skills, which include:
- Impulse control
- Creative problem solving
- Emotional control
- Working memory (Retaining information to complete a task.)
- Organization (both in terms of time management and materials management)
When this area of the brain was stimulated, the subject experienced disassociation without having a seizure.
Researchers then supplemented these findings with tests on mice.
Using light to stimulate neurons and bring on disassociative behavior, they found a particular protein crucial in bringing on the responses.
By building on this discovery, scientists are hoping these breakthroughs can lead to better treatment.
Until that day, however, you might want to try mindfulness meditation to manage your anxiety.
Because scientists have identified the brain functions that make this age-old practice work.
Anxiety relief linked to meditation activates the very same area of the brain involved with the executive-level functions affected by PTSD.
So if you suffer from disassociation, this anxiety-reducing practice might hit the spot for you.
If you have the symptoms I've described above, if you've been wandering through life in a fog, you might not just be "daydreaming," you might not be flighty, forgetful, and cranky.
It might be PTSD.
Especially if something traumatic happened to you when you were very young.
Because even though the memory may have faded or been wholly forgotten, you could still be suffering from the fallout.
If you're struggling with mental illness or severe emotional distress, please contact a doctor or mental health professional.
If you're in crisis, please call a helpline.
For everyone else, maybe try meditation, or finding a qualified therapist for now.
Because the good news is that as scientists begin to unravel how our brains process trauma, treatments for symptoms should also evolve and improve.
By combining new treatment options with old ones, the future looks bright for people who need a little help getting back down to earth and grounded.