There’s a rush of noise around me, inside me, surrounding and suffocating me. The lights are bright and yet I can’t seem to see anything. I’m trying to decide whether my chest is too heavy or the air is too thick to breathe when a sharp pat on my knee makes the noise jump into overdrive and I look for the source. My husband is sitting next me and talking, he looks into my eyes and talks and he wants me to answer him but I didn’t hear what he said because the noise is so loud. Why is it so loud? Am I really still sat on the couch? I can’t feel my legs – yet I felt him pat my knee so I must feel my legs….now I’m confused, are my legs there or not? I reach to touch them and notice my hands instead, are they really mine? They seem to move where I want them to, or are they copying me somehow? Are these someone else’s hands and they are copying what I want to do? There’s that noise again why won’t it go?! I need to talk now he’s waiting for me to talk, but what did he say? Why is this air so thick I can’t talk through this air I can’t breathe it. I need to say words I need to tell him something, but what? I need help I’m stuck I’m too far away how can I talk to him when he’s so far away. Nothing is happening no words are coming out, is my mouth still there or has that gone away too?
A brief description of how it can feel to be zoned out. It’s noisy, bright, distant and numbing. Too much stimuli at these times can be more damaging than helpful, in this situation quiet and calm is needed to enable the dissociative person to focus on one thing at a time. Too many things happening will cause more confusion and send them into a deeper dissociative state; too many people trying to talk to them, too many different sensory attempts at getting their attention i.e. strong smells, loud noises. The main danger in this situation is that realistic perception is very low, and most things will be filed into one of two categories – mildly interesting or highly threatening. You want to be considered mildly interesting and non threatening in order to guide them back to a more coherent state. How you guide them safely back to themselves and to a coherent state of mind depends a lot on your relationship with them – doctor/nurse, relative, partner, stranger or friend. I trust my husband completely, but he if he were to be too forward, too loud or too impatient in his attempts to ground me I would go onto “red alert” and either break free enough to run away in blind panic or else retreat so far within my own mind I’d be unreachable for quite some time. For myself the best people at grounding me are my children, just by being in the room they draw my attention and I usually simply watch them play and gradually become more and more aware of their surroundings and myself until I reach a point where communication is much easier. All my husband(or whoever is with me) has to do is sit and wait until I am ready/able to talk to him again.
The main point to remember is that when zoned out everything, and I mean everything, is both amplified and very distant at the same time. Everything is distorted, nothing is real and yet anything can be a threat. The aim of ‘grounding’ is to reintroduce logical thinking and reinforce the safety of the environment and situation. So think, what is safe? What do any of us consider safe? Familiar faces, comforting objects such as teddies and books, soothing music if appropriate(remember the noise issue!). In contrast, strangers, unknown objects, unfamiliar places, these things are not going to help ground a person floating half way between a panic attack and oblivion.
We are all different, we have all experienced different things, we have this condition for different reasons and we have different triggers, but ultimately we are all the same in one crucial way – we just want to feel safe.