We all vary in our ability to tune out distractions. We find ways to focus
on our task by decreasing awareness of our surroundings.
how we often don't realize that we're doing it until something or someone [hopefully not a
teacher or boss] brings us out of it. When we daydream, our consciousness is focused
inward, on our fantasies or memories. As with deliberate concentration [but often without
conscious choice], we draw a curtain between awareness of the "outside world"
and our inner process.
loss: A core concept of eastern religion/philosophy. We will be most effective
and serene when we "turn off" that part of us that is always watching,
reinforcing our sense of separateness from what we do, what we do it with,
and with whom we do. Think of the Zen archer, whose arrow will always find the target
because the archer, the arrow, and the target are one. [See the Library.]
Most of us have had the experience of driving for some distance and suddenly "waking
up." We realize we've somehow driven automatically, without paying any attention to the process. I
remember once riding a motorcycle through western Colorado and eastern Utah for a full
day, on autopilot. I started in the desert, and didn't wake up until a car in front of me
kicked up a small rock that hit my foot. When I looked around, I realized I was in a
suburban construction zone, surrounded by rush hour traffic. I had ridden for 8 hours,
even stopped for lunch, with no apparent attention to what I had done.
Autopilot differs from daydreaming in that one is actually doing something that would seem
to require attention, while consciousness is focused elsewhere. As one writer put it,
"You really are in two places at once."
response: Sometimes we disconnect from the reality of unpleasant events. We
become emotionally numb to some bad news we hear, even while we know we "should"
be sad or frightened or angry.
the mildest level of dissociative disorder. To
avoid experiencing distressing feelings or acknowledging disturbing memories, one becomes
unconsciously adept at separating from them. We all have unpleasant experiences we've
forgotten [or, we forget at least the unpleasantness]. Some of us are too good at being
unaware of our emotional state, as if on emotional autopilot. Sometimes, we develop the
habit of pretending to feel OK, but know that underneath it's an act, and that we're
putting off important work that needs to be done sometime.
Sometimes, the dissociation will be more specific, a response to something in the present
that reminds one of painful or frightening material that needs to be defended against. A
visit to your childhood home, a conversation about a threatening subject, reaching a new
stage in a relationship, can trigger a numbness, a separation from thoughts, feelings,
self. "I become an observer," one patient said, "rather than a feeler. I
can comment on things, but I don't feel them or really experience them."
Disorders: A variety of maladies that cause "clinically significant
distress or impairment
" in ways that vary with the function that is disturbed.
Dissociative Amnesia is related to disruption of memory, while Dissociative
Fugue [in which people suddenly and unexpectedly move away, forget their past,
and take on a new identity] suggests disruption of identity. Depersonalization
persistent or recurrent experiences of feeling detached
from, and as if one is an observer of, one's mental process or body
] may be related
to disruptions of consciousness and perception. DSM IV*
Identity Disorder or D.I.D.
[formerly Multiple Personality Disorder or M.P.D.]: At the
most severe are those who seem to be several different people. DSM IV*
describes "the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states
(each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking
about the environment and self)."
The diagnosis requires that at least two of the identities "recurrently take control
of the person's behavior." Usually, personalities switch when something in the
present "reminds" the person of distressing memories or experiences, usually
when the person doesn't have the tools in the moment needed to deal with it. Another
identity [or part] will then emerge that is more closely related to the original event.
Typically, the person is not aware of the other identities. Awareness varies, however, and
increases during treatment.
|* Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th edition) by American Psychiatric
Association: Washington, DC American Psychiatric Press 1994.
questions, or suggestions? Please, email
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Jonathan P. Levine, CSW
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Updated on 06/12/2002
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