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Essential Oils for Dissociation

By Jodi Cohen

Early in my grief process, people would commend me for how well I seemed to be coping, alluding to the fact that I was able to continue to function or not dissolve into a puddle when talking about Max.  

At the time, I took it as a compliment, but I have come to realize that it might not actually be a positive trait, but my strong ability to disassociate and not feel my painful feelings helped me cope.

This ability to emotionally numb and check out enabled me to survive stressful and difficult situations in my childhood and avoid intense negative emotions and traumatic memories.

While this ability to shut down emotions, thoughts, feelings, and memories has helped me survive difficult and intense situations, it has also kept my nervous system locked in a state of hyperarousal.

In other words, an adaptive behavior that was helpful in the past was now keeping me stuck and unable to feel and release the trauma to heal.  Everything about myself that I want to change is connected to a part of me that is disassociating – perhaps in an effort to protect myself. 

Dissociation is an adaptive response to threat and is a form of “freezing” and disconnecting from your senses, thoughts, feelings, emotions, or memories.  You shut down to remove yourself from a situation, in your own mind, when physical escape is not possible.

When faced with danger, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, allocating resources to fight or flee.  When you are unable to fight or flee, you freeze – your body remains internally prepared for fight or flight, while externally holding still, waiting for an opportunity.  For example, an animal under attack may initially stay very still until it sees an opportunity to flee. Escape would not be possible without having the mobilization response at the ready.

The dissociative freeze response keeps you stuck in the sympathetic branch of the nervous system – revved and ready to fight or flight but also paralyzed by immobility.  This is how I experience overwhelm – feeling the need to act and emotionally shut down at the same time.  My brain cannot process an overload of stimuli, so I dissociate and shut down.

In nature, animals physically shake to discharge the stress.  Sadly, humans do not discharge or mobilize the energy of the freeze response.  Instead, it stays locked in your body contributing to chronic and prolonged stress and over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system as you oscillate between being hyper-aroused (fight or flight) and dissociating (freeze). Both experiences stem from the same part of the brain (limbic system) that is not settled and perceives current experiences through a distorted lens of past trauma.

When you are able to discharge that energy, you can release posttraumatic stress symptoms.  

But in order to release your emotions, you need to feel your emotions – which requires you to stop dissociating and actually feel your feelings.

By freezing, you avoid both the physical sensations and the emotional effects that might have been so uncomfortable at the time of the trauma that it was too difficult to process.

As with all of the stress responses, the freeze response – also known as numbing and disassociation – is trying to keep us safe and avoid feeling painful emotions that we may not be able to tolerate. 

Dissociating is something that many of us do without realizing. It can happen when you go into autopilot – worrying, daydreaming, getting engrossed in a book or film so much so that you are not aware of your surroundings anymore, zoning out while you drive a familiar route and arrive at your destination without any memory of how you got there or other situations where you might “lose time”.

Symptoms and signs of dissociation may include:

  • Problems handling intense emotions
  • Sudden and unexpected shifts in mood – like feeling very sad for no reason
  • Depression or anxiety 
  • Memory lapses such as forgetting important personal information
  • Spacing out, staring
  • Minimizing (“It’s not a big deal”)
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Unexplained vision challenges
  • Forgetting events or periods of time
  • Daydreaming
  • Feeling disconnected from your body
  • High tolerance for pain
  • Inability to name or describe your emotions
  • Feeling detached from yourself or others
  • Derealization (denial) 
  • Feeling compelled to behave in a certain way
  • Feeling detached from your life, thoughts, and feelings. 
  • Changing yourself depending on the situation or people, like a chameleon
  • Feeling disconnected
  • Dulled senses
  • Gaps in memory where you can’t remember certain events
  • Feeling ‘spacey’ or out of control. 
  • Time may slow down.
  • Engage in prolonged bouts of sleep, daydreaming, wishing, and right brain-dominant activities like TV, computer, and video games. 
  • Change the internal channel whenever the inner experience becomes uncomfortable. 

Dissociation and the freeze response can be a healthy way to navigate physically or emotionally dangerous situations – including trauma, abuse, death or abandonment, neglect, bullying, fights in the home, or any kind of physical or emotional violence – when too much stress overwhelms your nervous system.

Physical or emotional danger activates the sympathetic “fight or flight” branch of your nervous system.  However, if you can neither defeat a dangerous opponent or situation nor safely flee from it, your body drops into the self-paralyzing freeze response, also known as dissociation.

In these situations, your body does not release the hormones to help you fight or flee, but instead causes you to “freeze up” or “numb out”.   Your body releases chemicals that function as an analgesic, dulling the intensity and the pain of any mental, physical, or emotional injury.  This allows you to survive the enormity of what’s happening to you and survive the trauma.  If you can’t make a dangerous individual or situation disappear, you’re much better off “disappearing” yourself, by blocking out what’s much too scary to take in.

In other words, your sense of safety requires you to mentally check out of stressful situations.  It’s almost like a shield going up – your brain protects you from experiencing negative feelings, trauma, and traumatic experiences.”

While a dissociative response may enable you to survive difficult situations, you may end up over-using that coping mechanism chronically – out of habit and without awareness. 

This adaptive measure can create maladaptive problems, especially when avoiding dealing with and releasing the underlying trauma.

Activation of the sympathetic nervous system – which drives the fight, flight, and freeze response – requires your nervous system to shift into a highly energized state.  The acts of fighting and fleeing allow your nervous system to discharge this energy and move back into a state of normal function.

The freeze state does not allow us to naturally discharge this energy and that trapped energy, along with the corresponding thoughts and emotions of fear or panic, can stay trapped in your body, contributing to a perpetual state of high alert in the brain and nervous system.

In nature, animals often shake or experience rhythmic waves of muscle contractions when they come out of a freeze response.    As humans, we often override or avoid the trembling or shaking that would help drain off the energy of the freeze response, leading to ongoing activation of the sympathetic nervous system.  When your body is stuck in the freeze response, it can present “paralyzing” symptoms like panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, avoidance behaviors or other phobias, spaciness, numbing out, and other anxiety states.

In the context of severe chronic abuse, the reliance on disassociation is adaptive, as it succeeds as an avoidance or coping strategy to help reduce unbearable distress and ward off the threat of psychological annihilation.

Unlike active avoidance or the flight option in the fight-or-flight response, there is no release of stress. The mind simply pulls away in order to avoid feelings of fear, anxiety, or pain.  But the issues stay in the tissues and contribute to mental and physical health concerns, including:

Emotional Disconnection: The longer you disconnect from your feelings and your emotions to separate you from your pain, the harder it is to actually experience them.

Sympathetic Dominance:  The freeze reaction to a threat coincides with a blunted autonomic response, which constitutes the dissociative subtype of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” according to research on Trauma-related dissociation and the autonomic nervous system. The unresolved activation of your sympathetic nervous system keeps that fight or flight system running in the background and draining your energy.

Cognitive Decline: Dissociation is one way the mind copes with too much stress.  It helps relieve the pain of hyperarousal but compromises the effective use of your executive functions, such as emotional regulation and socialization. Research found that emotional processing is reduced in those presenting with dissociation and an increase in amygdala activity, where anxiety and fear responses persist.

Maladaptive emotional response: Dissociation indicates that you are too overwhelmed to tolerate new learning can occur.  Elements that would normally be connected as thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, and beliefs become disconnected.

Pain and Inflammation: Dissociation from the body can also lead to chronic pain and inflammation in the areas you feel cut off from. 

Dissociation pulls you out of your body and shuts down your access to your physical senses, including your sense of smell.

That said, accessing your sense of smell through the inhalation of essential oils is one of the easiest ways to help “ground” your body and bring awareness back to your body. 

When you are “grounded” you are present in the world here and now when you feel out of control or disconnected from your surroundings, your mind, your body, or all three.  Smelling or diffusing essential oils can help to “shock” your senses to help you come back when you dissociate. 

Your sense of smell is also linked to survival and is the most sensitive of the senses. People can remember smells with 65% accuracy after a year, while visual recall is about 50% after three months.  It is interesting to note that a  woman’s sense of smell is much stronger than a man’s and is heightened even more during the first half of the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.

Your sense of smell also connects directly to the part of your brain that regulates the release of hormones that impact your mood and emotional state. 

Essential oils travel through the nasal passageways to the brain where they bind to olfactory receptors. From there they reach the emotional center of the brain – known as the limbic system – where they can stimulate the release of neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which can influence your neurochemistry, helping to enhance mood and reduce anxiety. 

Research validates this, noting that “inhalation of essential oils can communicate signals to the olfactory system and stimulate the brain to exert neurotransmitters (e.g. serotonin and dopamine) thereby further regulating mood.”  Additional research shows that essential oils can significantly impact the brain, calming emotional states and decreasing blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature, which indicates a decrease in autonomic arousal.

Some of my favorite essential oils to help me shift out of dissociation and into my body include”

1.  Attention™ for Grounding

Grounding helps you shift your focus and awareness back to your immediate surroundings and pull them out of whatever mental state has caused a disconnection so you can stay in the present moment and better connect with your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, so you are able to rely less on dissociation.

Grounding is a technique that helps you connect to the healing energy of nature and the Earth.  Grounding brings us into a state of balance, both mentally and physically. It is in this balanced state that our body can rest, repair, and heal on the physical, emotional, and spiritual levels.

When you connect with the Earth or plants that have grown from the Earth, you allow your bodies to align with the natural rhythm of the planet. When we lose this connection to nature, it interferes with our internal rhythm and balance, impeding our ability to return to balance so we can relax, sleep, detoxify, digest, repair, and heal.  When we ground ourselves, these natural processes flow easily without interference.

Essential oils, especially those derived from grounded plants like trees are intrinsically grounded through their root structure into the Earth.  Essential oils comprised of barks, roots, grasses, needles, and resin of plants also help you pull your energy centers down into the Earth.

Plants that grow under the earth are entrained with the earth’s energies.  This is why stones, root vegetables, or essential oils from root plants that share space with the Earth, match the frequency of the Earth and can be used for grounding.  Rock, crystals, and minerals, in particular, are able to hold a solid vibration so when you hold one in your hand or place it near your body, you have to change your frequency to match that of the rock or mineral. This is one reason that crystals are so popular for grounding.

Attention™ blend was designed to support children with ADD/ADHD and it works because it helps ground these kids into their bodies and when they are grounded, they are less distracted, impulsive, and more focused.   Attention™ contains Vetiver, a perennial bunchgrass with very deep roots that help ground it to the Earth.  Vetiver essential oil is extracted from these deep roots and is known to ground you mentally, physically, and emotionally, often helping you explore the root of your emotional issues.  Attention™ also contains Frankincense™ – a resin extracted from trees that grow in the challenging climates of northeastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.  These challenging climates make Frankincense™ uniquely resilient and supportive to help with grounding.  Apply 2- 3 drops of Attention™ on the bottom of the feet and back of the neck to help with grounding.

2. Parasympathetic™ to Calm the Nervous System

Parasympathetic™ calms your nervous system and helps you be present in the moment, to both your own body and to your mental, emotional, and physical needs.

This blend of clove and lime essential oils helps energize your physical body and mental capacity, helping to support the brain to embrace optimism and hope.

Your sympathetic “fight or flight” state turns on when survival and safety are threatened.  When you are stuck in a cycle of sympathetic dominance – and not activating your parasympathetic nervous system –  your body’s alert mechanism for survival remains on high and you can become trapped in a perception that you are not safe, which lays the groundwork for pessimism and negative thinking.

The parasympathetic system restores a sense of safety and balance which calms the brain and the body by activating your parasympathetic nervous system to help you identify and support your own needs.  The research found that – when stimulated, your vagus nerve releases anti-anxiety chemicals that help you focus on positive emotions, decrease mental distress, and improve mental well-being. 

Apply Parasympathetic™ over the vagus nerve (behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone) to activate the vagus nerve.  This helps discharge energy and shift out of the frozen state into the healing parasympathetic.

As you restore the integration between the body and the brain following chronic and traumatic stress, your nervous system becomes more flexible and adaptable, further retraining your system to stay in the body and not revert to old habits of dissociation.

READ THIS NEXT: Feeling Your Feelings

3. Fascia Release™ to Release Trauma from Your Tissues

Your issues are in your tissues. Releasing dissociation requires you to feel your feelings, not only in your mind but in your heart and body as well.

Your emotional experiences and memories are stored in the tissues of your body.  When you experience stress, part of you is resistant, which triggers you to physically contract,  constrict, or pull away from physical danger, a negative thought, or an emotional aversion.  

This triggers your fight or flight response where you constrict and restrict your breath and your energy in preparation for attack.  When you feel you can’t flee or fight your way out of a bad situation, you hold your breath or breathe minimally and freeze, hoping the threat will pass you unscathed. Instead, you internalize the fear without release or recovery.

In short, energy doesn’t flow and your body constricts – which locks the stress in your body.

After stress passes, the emotions should be discharged and released.

Animals in the wild will pant and then breathe more slowly to recover the oxygen it lost from fast breathing and reset their metabolism. Animals intuitively know it is dangerous to face another threat before it has recovered from the last one and it takes time to replenish and rebalance its body. This entire sequence—fight or flight plus recovery—serves to maximize an animal’s chances for healthy survival.

Sadly, most of us (myself included) do not take the time to rest and recover from stressful experiences. We get accustomed to the fearful contraction and it stays locked into our tissues.

Our hard-wired defenses are meant to protect us from harm, but when we don’t allow the cycle to complete itself by letting go of the energy and resting, we wind up accumulating the stress in our bodies and they begin to break down because of it.

We release the issues in the tissues through the fascia – a system of connective tissue beneath the skin that surrounds and encases your body’s tissues and binds them together, providing shape for organs, muscles, tendons, bones, and joints.

Your fascia system is the tissue in the body that your emotions – or energy in motion –travel through and are released. When your fascia is tight and constricted, emotions do not flow and are not released, but instead become trapped in your tissue.

To release the trapped energy in the tissue and negative emotions, you need to release the fascia.  Essential oils offer a safe and simple way to release negative emotions from the tissue and create an ease of flow for healthy fascia.

The essential oils in the Fascia Release™ blend are uniquely formulated to unravel deeply held tensions, constrictions, and energetic blockages in your tissues to reduce pain, improve blood and lymphatic circulation, and release fear, repressed emotions, and tension held in the body (organs, muscles, tendons, bones, and joints) or the mind.

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About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.