This is part 2 of a 3 episode mini series about depression.
Welcome to Part 2 of my 3-episode depression series. Today's conversations first discusses dissociation, what it is and why it happens. I then invite you into exploring how you uniquely experience this shut down state. Mapping this nervous system state involves exploring the different sesnation, emotions, thoughts, and behviors that you experience there. The more familiar you become with why and how you uniquely experience depression, the clearer the path becomes to regulation and healing. Hit play to learn more!
RESOURCE: Mapping Your Red Zone Worksheet
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Welcome to regulate, and rewire and anxiety and depression podcast where we discuss the things I wish someone would have taught me earlier in my healing journey. I'm your host, Amanda Armstrong. And I'll be sharing my steps, my missteps, client experiences and tangible research based tools to help you regulate your nervous system, rewire your mind and reclaim your life. Thanks for being here. Now let's dive in.
Welcome back. This is part two of our three part depression mini series conversation. So if you haven't yet listened to the previous episode, I highly recommend starting there. This will give you some framework that I will be building off of today. But just a quick overview of this mini series. Part one was about understanding depression through a nervous system lens, we talked about the difference in understanding depression through a chemical imbalance theory versus polyvagal theory, which in my opinion, is a more helpful theory and more research supported theory to approach your healing from and then today, we are going to discuss dissociation, which is a very closest or symptom to depression, they both happen in the same red zone shutdown state. And we are going to explore how you can start to explore your unique depression map and what that means at the end of today's conversation. And then next week, in our third part to this mini series. This is where I am going to introduce to you the tangible somatic and poly vagal practices that we use with clients every day, to help them regulate their nervous system when they find herself in states or even just in situations where they feel really shut down, dissociated or depressed. So this is where we're going to get into the tangible tools to help you shift out of dissociation and depression.
So today, I'm going to jump right into a conversation around dissociation because this is something that a lot of our clients experience. And it's something that I get questions about every every single week from members and through different social media platforms, people send me messages through my website about what dissociation is, and what they can do when it happens.
So if you remember, last week, I shared a story about wedding dress shopping with my little sister, where I was physically there for that experience, but I felt very mentally and emotionally disconnected. So this is something that we call dissociation. Like I mentioned, it is a really common thing to experience when struggling with depression, or while in this kind of overwhelmed shutdown state what we in my practice often call the red zone.
So let's answer this first question of you know, what is dissociation. So formally, dissociation refers to a mental process where a person disconnects or separates from their thoughts, their feelings, memories, or even sense of identity. It is a defense mechanism that often occurs in response to traumatic events or overwhelming stress. And this concept of dissociation, being a defense mechanism is something that we are going to talk a lot more about.
So another way that I sometimes explain dissociation is you can think about it as mental flight when physical flight or even physical fight isn't an option. So dissociation is a mental flight, when physical flight isn't an option, or just when your nervous system doesn't seem to think that it's an option. So for example, in the story that I shared, my nervous system was so overwhelmed with life, that in order to physically be present for this event, in my sister's life, it had to be distant and disconnected in other ways. So in order for me to be physically present, I had to be disconnected mentally.
So dissociation can look a million different ways for a million different people. It might look like endless and mindless scrolling on your phone, it could be zoning out, it could be in more extreme cases, a total shutdown. It could feel like leaving your body, especially in the cases of verbal, physical or sexual assault, we hear this a lot like I just left my body or I just totally shut down. And it's any kind of sense of being disconnected from any aspect of yourself, the situation or the world. And I just really want to reiterate that you do not choose this response your nervous system does.
And in working with our clients, there's often a lot of shame attached to dissociation. I hear things a lot like, you know, why can't I just be more present? Why didn't I stand up for myself? You know, I just completely shut down and so on. Like, why didn't I fight you or your nervous system responded in the way that it felt it needed to, to stay safe or prevent you from becoming even more overwhelmed or flooded in a situation. And I think sometimes this makes sense when the situation is extreme. And you're like, Well, okay, like, yeah, it makes sense why, like, they totally shut down in that situation like, of course, it was overwhelming.
But how can I shut down just around my kids or in my everyday life. And again, I'm going to continue to reiterate that dissociation is a defense mechanism. And until we can really see it as that and strip away some of that shame, it's going to be hard for us to be self compassionate, and the way that we need to be to access some curiosity that we need to start to heal. So we'll talk a little bit more about that in a minute.
But I do want to touch on kind of two common sub experiences of dissociation. And these are labeled depersonalization and Derealization. So depersonalization is where someone feels detached from, like their, their own body or their own mental process. And Derealization is where you might feel a sense of detachment or disconnection from the surrounding world. So this is where you know you're walking in a situation, and feeling and unfamiliarity or strangeness with within your surroundings. So my clients often describe these as feeling like they are observing themselves or a situation in a movie, or from an outside perspective, in different forms of dissociation, depersonalization derealization, you might feel like you're in a dream or a fog. Sometimes the familiar places seem unfamiliar. Sometimes it has to do with time, time feels a little too fast or too slow, and so on. And in some extreme cases, I've worked with clients who even look in the mirror, and they logically know that that's their reflection. But it doesn't feel like them. It doesn't feel familiar to them.
They don't, you know, almost even recognize it as their own, or another client who has experienced this when they're out to dinner. And she was sharing how she just found herself kind of like nodding along to a conversation but felt like she was in a cloud felt like the voices were kind of distant and muted. And I do want to make a quick distinction in this conversation around dissociation. Because dissociation is different from delusion.
So a delusion is when you actually believe that something that is real isn't real. It is kind of this fixed belief that is contrary to reality. Let's see, for example, maybe you're looking at your reflection in the mirror, and you're adamant that that, that it's not you, or you're out to dinner, and you actually believe that you're trapped in a cloud viewing the world versus just feeling kind of foggy. So somebody in a dissociative state feels disconnected or detached from reality, their self, or maybe a personal experience. And these experiences can be really unsettling. And yet, they still remain grounded in reality. So despite the changes in their perception, they understand that their sense of disconnection is based on a feeling and not reality itself.
So hopefully, that was a helpful distinction, or somebody needed to hear that. But in short, through this nervous system lens, we understand dissociation to be just another adaptive and protective thing that our nervous system might do, when being connected feels like too much when it feels too overwhelming or when it's unsafe. And I wanted to touch on this in the series, because it's another really common thing that happens when we get into that red shutdown state. And many, many people who struggle with depression also experience forms of dissociation. And in part three of this series is where I'm going to discuss tangible things that you can do to regulate your nervous system, when you are feeling shut down, dissociated or depressed. And because today's conversation is about going even a layer deeper than just reframing and understanding these things. It's really about today's conversation, in more ways than one.
I want to be a place to hold space for you to personally explore how you experience these things. So I want to invite you if you have the capacity to do so right now to just take a moment to reflect on what happens when you dissociate. Have you ever or do you ever feel detached from yourself your mind? A situation in any way as a Maybe you're kind of observing yourself from outside your body, or just completely disconnected. In what situations? Do you tend to dissociate most often? Is it maybe conflict oriented conversations? Maybe it's at home, when you finally have a moment where the kids have stopped meeting you, you've stopped needing to do a to do list, you know, and so on. So how do you, how do you experience this? What situations cause you to disconnect? To experience that as a numbness and emotional detachment? Is there a distorted time? Maybe you're in a fog? Does it look like mindless scrolling? zoning out? And maybe your immediate answer to all these questions is, you know, I don't know.
And so this is just a gentle invitation to maybe start noticing with a little bit more intention, what this kind of disconnection looks like, in your life. And now before heading into the final part of today's conversation, where we're going to map out how you uniquely experience this red zone shutdown state of your nervous system, I want to do a quick review of what is happening physiologically in your body when you are in this state, and maybe some common ways that the state is experienced, before jumping into some exploratory questions for you, to determine how you uniquely experienced this.
So if you remember, this shutdown state is at the bottom of that nervous system ladder. This is the final option our nervous system has, during times where we can't take action where there is extreme pain or overwhelm, or when we are simply running out of energy. So we talked about this in part one, where we often enter the shutdown state when something is so intense, so overwhelming, that we need to kind of numb or when we've been in this activated yellow zone state for so so long, and we're running out of energy, we can only fight or flee for so long. So when we enter this state, it triggers our body to produce analgesic chemicals. So these are things that help to numb or alleviate pain, it also triggers our body to conserve energy.
So those are the two priorities physiologically of this state is to kind of numb the pain and conserve energy. So an example of this in the animal kingdom, let's say a lion is chasing a gazelle. And at first, the body's preferred response is usually activation, we see a stressor, we see a threat, we want to fight it off, or run from it. Well, this gazelle isn't about to punch a lion. So instinctually, it runs, it runs and runs and runs and runs, it goes into a flight response. And then one of three things either happen either a it runs and it gets away, or to this gazelle gets cornered. So running is no longer an option. Or the third is that it runs and runs and runs for so long that it becomes exhausted. So when those things happen in nature, what you'll watch often is their body suddenly goes lifeless, not again, because they've had a heart attack or because they're actually dead. But because when the fight or flight response fails, the only other option is to shut down and hope that one of two things happen either one that playing dead, or by playing dead they survive, or that these numbing chemicals in our body that are released, do their job. And when this gazelle is attacked, it's less painful, and it happens more quickly. And they're disconnected from that horrifying experience. And I know that this sounds grim. But I think understanding the physiology behind our nervous system states can be really, really helpful in learning how to navigate and heal through through this new lens.
The Gazelle does not make a conscious choice, like it's time to give up now, as a result of the intensity of the load on the animal's nervous system, that's the state that it drops into. And when we can realize, when we can realize this, realize this realizes that we are not choosing dissociation, we are not choosing depression, there is no part of this that is a personal failure at all. So much of that shame can dissipate. And that can help us to step into the compassion and the curiosity that's needed to find your way back up that nervous system ladder.
In fact, just in a coaching call today, when doing some nervous system mapping with a client, she was exploring how anxiety felt in her body. And I was doing some Invitational questions and she said something like, I just don't know. Like, I get so overwhelmed that I don't know what it feels like in my body. I'm having a hard time connecting to that experience. And there is definitely some level of somatic body based awareness that is just offline when we get into survival mode. But we also started talking about, you know, that numbing agent that happens when we do get to that place where we are getting so overwhelmed. There is is a natural, disconnecting and unnatural numbing that happens as this defense mechanism. And so when you enter the shutdown state when you dissociate or feel depressed, whether just in the moment situationally, or in these long term states, again, it's not a conscious choice.
So just quick recap. Extreme expressions of the shutdown state look like dissociation, numbness, maybe even fainting, right? That's like a physical collapse and disconnection. The goal of this state is to prevent further pain and to conserve energy. And when you get stuck in the shutdown, state for a long time, those symptoms look like depression, low motivation, low mood, low energy, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, maybe apathy, thinking things like, you know, what's the point, there might be dark thoughts, something that was really common for me, it was just really feeling overwhelmed by most tasks, kind of any tasks. And so this is some general ways of experiencing this shutdown state.
Now, I want to take the rest of our time today to hold space for you to explore how you uniquely experienced this state. And even if you are not someone who would label your symptoms as depression, we all have moments in our days or our lives where we shut down whether from overwhelm or grief, there's a sense of helplessness in a specific situation. This red zone is something that we all experience to some degree at some point or another. And familiarizing yourself with what that uniquely looks and feels like for you can help you to navigate it better if or when it does show up again. And so this is meant to be interactive and exploratory. As I walk you through what mapping out your depression might look like.
And some of you might be asking, like, what does that even mean like mapping, mapping out depression. So in the three part anxiety series that we previously did, we did this in part two of that series, but for anxiety. So if you listen to that this may sound familiar. But today, we're going to focus on mapping out again, that red zone state where depression lives. So just like an actual map helps you to determine where you are to help you set course for where you want to go appropriately. mapping out your nervous system does a similar thing. It helps you to familiarize yourself with this state so that you can catch it earlier and hopefully intervene sooner. Because it's one thing to understand all of this conceptually, it's another thing entirely to make what you've been learning about depression, personal.
So this next part, I'm going to walk you through exploring what it feels like for you, you to uniquely be in this shutdown state. And what I hope you get out of this is two main things. One, like I just mentioned, becoming more familiar with where you are on that nervous system ladder. becoming more familiar with the symptoms of how you experienced this red zone state can help you catch it and reverse that spiral of depression sooner. And also, because as you'll learn in part three of this series, different tools work depending on the different level of shutdown that you're experiencing. And also, there's no universal way to regulate your nervous system, different things work for different people. And so you will need to have this body based awareness to know if a particular tool is supportive for you or not and helping you shift out of this kind of immobilized and shutdown state. So let's jump right in how to map your nervous system the dorsal vagal shutdown aka your red zone edition.
So what we're going to do here is to look at get curious about and identify four different categories of experience when you are in this shutdown state. What are the sensations, emotions, thoughts and be behaviors that occur for you in this red zone. So on a piece of paper, write down at the top, either the word depression or shutdown, whichever word resonates the most for you, you can even put redzone at the top. And then you're going to create four columns. And you're going to title these sensations, column number two emotions, number three thoughts and column number four behaviors. And actually, I will create and attach a worksheet in the show notes that you can use for this instead. So if you don't want to write this out on a piece of paper, I'll create a worksheet that you can just print and use. And within each one of these categories, you are going to explore how this shows up and looks for you.
So for example, in that first category, what are the sensations that you experience? When you're in the shutdown state? How do you know that you're depressed or disconnected? So just taking a moment to maybe even mentally answer that question. Some common sensations, some common things in the body first, the word we've used a lot today is like numb. So how do you know sensationally? That you're in the red zone? Are you fatigued? They're a loss of appetite. Do you feel heavy in your body? Low energy, low mood foggy. Maybe you have some slow, shallow breathing. Maybe there's a sensation of not being in your body. And there's definitely a spectrum of this right? There's a little bit overwhelmed. And then there's totally overwhelmed. There's a little bit disconnected and totally disconnected. But just exploring what are some of the sensations that indicate you're in this overwhelmed shutdown state? And then moving to that next column, which are emotions? What emotions do you experience we've talked about depression can be an emotion, dissociation, disconnected. Other emotions we've mentioned in this episode are helpless, hopeless shame. Just like that gazelle, right, they might enter the state when they get trapped, trapped could be an emotion, apathy. Maybe lonely, disinterested. So what are some other emotions? Beyond, you know, just depression, feeling numb or flat, that exist for you when you're in this state? And if as you go through this exploratory exercise to map out your red zone state, if your brain offers you, I don't know. I don't know what other emotions are there.
This is where I want to invite you to just take a deep breath and reply back to your brain? Well, if you didn't know, what might those other emotions be? Allowing just a gentler curiosity and your brain still gives you I don't know, no big deal. Move on to the next column. For many of you who've been really disconnected from your body for a long time, you might not be able to come up with either emotions or sensations. Maybe it's easier for you to come up with thoughts. What kind of thoughts do you think in this state? What kind of stories do you tell yourself, about you about the world about situations? Some common thoughts in the shutdown state are things like it doesn't even matter. Nobody cares about me. I can't cope, right feeling really helpless. Everything is so hard. What's the point? I'm invisible? I'm alone. What kinds of thoughts do you think when you are in the shutdown state?
And then that last category to explore our behaviors. What are the things that you do or don't do when in the shutdown state? Maybe you withdraw, you isolate. You have a flat tone or facial expression. Actually, as you start to explore that, I'll share one more Lori, I was a college track athlete. And I distinctly remember, one of my roommates was on my track team as well. I had injured my knee. So I had been out of practice for maybe two weeks at this point. And I was feeling really low, I was in conflict with another one of my roommates, I was super overwhelmed with my class load, I wasn't able to exercise which was a major coping mechanism for me, I wasn't able to spend that time with my team, because I was rehabbing my knee. And it was raining. And my roommate who was on the track team with me, she called me and she was like, hey, like, can you come pick me up from practice? And I remember responding like, Yeah, sure. And she was like, well, like you don't, you don't have to, if you don't want to, I just didn't really want to walk home in the rain. And I responded and try to pay attention to my tone. Yeah, it's no problem, like, I'll just come get you. And the reality of that situation was, it really was no problem, I really didn't mind coming to get her. And when I picked her up, I looked at her because I had had some time to recalibrate. And I was like, I understand that I didn't sound like I was okay to come get you. But I really, really, I'm happy to have come and got you. I'm just feeling pretty numb and pretty flat right now. And that's just like the only tone of voice that I could muster. And so we really do often get kind of this like flat tone of facial expression that was kind of one of two very clear depressive seasons of my life.
And so just taking some time to explore these four categories, because when you have some familiarity around how you experience this nervous system state, again, you're able to catch yourself slipping into the state a little bit earlier. So hopefully, you can intervene sooner, and move yourself up that nervous system ladder. And sometimes you're going to be able to catch the thoughts earlier, maybe it's the sensations or emotions or behaviors that can just kind of like raise that red flag that say, Hey, we're heading into, or we're in the shutdown state. And as you build out your toolbox of polyvagal practices, somatic practices, even mindset practices that help you to reverse this spiral of depression. That is, how we heal depression through a nervous system lens is first through kind of this education of what that means, then through this personal awareness of how you uniquely experienced this. And then it's building out this unique and personalized toolkit, these tools that you can go to to help communicate safety and capacity and capability to your nervous system in those moments.
And I want to remind you that this exploration, this mapping is never a one and done. I want to invite you to spend the next week or so paying attention to and adding things as you notice them and this mapping will shift and change throughout different seasons of your healing as well. So that's it for today. You are not trying to change anything right now. It is just about sitting with and exploring kind of why and how this all shows up for you. This is the start of befriending your nervous system. Can you spend time to familiarize yourself enough with these earlier signs of dysregulation? Can you come into conversation with these messages from your body, this is the first step to eventually learning how to turn inwards and towards your nervous system to regulate.
And this is something that we spend a lot of time doing actively we're in this exploration with our clients, it is foundational to our nervous system regulation. And so if this is something that you're having a hard time doing on your own, I invite you to seek out support whether through our programs or anybody else out there who is a polyvagal and trauma informed practitioner.
Now to quickly sum this up, your three tangible takeaways from today's conversation are one, this understanding of dissociation as a defense mechanism and not a defect. It is mental flight when physical flight might not seem like an option. It is one of our nervous systems most powerful defense mechanisms to shield you during times of trauma or extreme stress and allows your mind to create distance from overwhelming experiences. And it happens when you enter that red shutdown state.
And it goes hand in hand with various protective physiological things that happen to tangible takeaway number two, which is achieve this goal of minimizing further pain and conserving energy. And so when we think of this association or depression, the shutdown state. These are the two goals that our nervous system has in mind that we want to minimize further pain, whether this is further physical pain, emotional pain, things like rejection. Right, any kind of further pain and or to conserve energy because we have been going and going and going and going and going for far too long.
And tangible takeaway. Number three is this personal exploration, this mapping of this nervous system state, understanding that when you can become familiar with how you uniquely experienced these various nervous system states, today, specifically talking about the shutdown state, you can catch yourself entering the states quicker, intervene with the appropriate tools that you know, meet the unique needs of your nervous system to reverse the spiral of depression more effectively and more efficiently. So that you can get back to living a life that feels better and where it feels safer for you to be more connected to yourself and the world around you.
Again, just sending you so much hope, in healing, I thoroughly believe that there is life, a beautiful life, on the other side of anxiety and depression. An understanding and approaching healing through this nervous system lens has absolutely made that possible for myself and hundreds of our clients. Thank you for being here for some of these tougher conversations. And I really look forward to diving into part three of this series where I get to share with you what I know most of you are at the edge of your seats for what are those tangible tools What is the how in shifting out of this nervous system state? So stay tuned, and I will see you in the next episode.