What Is Chemical Dissociation and Why Must First Responders Avoid It?

What Is Chemical Dissociation and Why Must First Responders Avoid It?

Published on July 23, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

Making your way through the cycle of addiction eventually leads to confronting the realities of your alcohol and/or substance use. For many, the act of getting high or drunk may feel like a thoughtless impulse — but upon examining that urge, a lot of well-hidden truths can be realized. Usually, the drive to drink or use stems from an underlying and unspoken desire to escape the feelings of a particular moment. This process is also known as chemical dissociation, when one effectively disengages from their mental state by altering their brain chemistry with drugs or alcohol.

Identifying the moments when we long to detach from our own emotional state clarifies the situations that can trigger addictive behavior. For first responders who may experience medical trauma, violence, crime, death, and other life-altering events at any time, the desire to detach emotionally at the end of the day is perfectly understandable. But it’s still important to understand what this process is and how the urge to escape our own thoughts can quickly lead to addiction.

What is Dissociation?

Dissociation describes a range of detachment from emotions, identity, or reality. The degree of the disconnect can be as mild as daydreaming or as severe as multiple personality disorder. The varying intensity of dissociation outlines a spectrum of dissociative symptoms, with alcohol and/or substance use becoming more likely for those with higher levels of dissociative tendencies. First responders are particularly vulnerable because they often need to detach to forget what they’ve just seen or experienced on a bad shift.

Anyone who has had an inkling to escape the present moment — even if just to scroll through Instagram or play a video game to distract yourself — the pull of running away from our problems is highly relatable and feels very tangible. These moments when we want to pause our lives, opting for distraction over sitting with our feelings, represent the beginning of dissociation from reality. While these feelings are quite natural, often coming on as a means to avoid difficult decisions or actions, surrendering to dissociation can be a slippery slope for anyone dealing with addiction.

How Are Addiction and Dissociation Related?

The higher level of dissociation a person displays indicates their tendency to evade the present moment, but does that necessarily mean they will turn to alcohol and/or substances to speed up the process? According to a study published in the Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, individuals with a higher level of dissociation tended to have higher expectations that alcohol and/or substances could manage their psychiatric symptoms.

The inclination to use may stem from optimism. Hoping that alcohol and/or substances will act as a medicine to soothe the current moment is an extension of a detachment from reality. The objective truth is that ingesting any mood or mind-altering chemicals will not make a first responder’s memories of death or destruction go away. In a naive embellishment of procrastination, expecting problems to solve themselves while we are high and/or intoxicated is not only unrealistic, but it often has the opposite effect and makes our problems even worse.

When Does Dissociation Occur?

Wanting to be somewhere else is a very relatable experience. We have all dealt with anxiety as well as varying degrees of our desire to escape. Dissociation specifically arises from situations when a circumstance becomes overwhelming. Higher levels of dissociation tend to take root during traumatic experiences — and most first responders encounter these on a regular basis.

The process of removing part of the psyche from feelings of shock act as a self-defense mechanism for the brain protecting itself. For first responders who see the best and worst of what humanity has to offer, it may feel natural to try to dissociate from a succession of negative experiences.

A huge mechanism for the brain’s decision-making process is the fight-flight-freeze response. Dissociation combines both flight and freeze together, with a psychological urge to retreat occurring at the same time as the physical body freezes. The trauma of an experience can develop into a phobia, which then triggers dissociative behavior in response to any stimuli that recalls the trauma-inducing incident(s).

In other words, if a traumatic incident has led to chemical dissociation as a response in the past, the mind will pursue the same response when coping with similar incidents. It can lead to a vicious cycle for first responders who deal with trauma on a regular basis.

How to Fight Dissociation and Addiction Together

For both dissociation and addiction, the first step is recognizing a pattern of behavior. It just so happens that these two disorders, when they are co-occurring, will feed off each other’s persistence. Treating both disorders simultaneously is essential to preventing one disorder from re-igniting the other. One treatment may help in recovering from addiction but might not provide any tangible recourse for dissociation. It’s important to find a program that can treat both conditions simultaneously.

These conditions come from the functions of our brains of which neuroscience has only begun to scratch the surface. Even the most well-equipped and trained treatment programs are unable to fully explain the inner-workings of these conditions, which is why first responders need to admit that they cannot recover alone.

By opening themselves up to receiving help from trained professionals, they position themselves to surrender control. For first responders or anyone else, coming to terms with the reality of our situation grounds us in the truth of our present state of recovery.

Dissociation can be an underlying factor for anyone recovering from addiction. In situations where chemical dependency problems are coupled with diagnosable co-occurring disorders, we recognize that both need to be addressed for appropriate patient care. Post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression are just a few of the disorders that we help first responders manage and overcome. We have the knowledge and experience to meet your unique needs and help you live a substance-free life. To learn more, please call our admissions staff 24/7 at (888) 743-0490.