A lot of trauma survivors suffer from dissociation, but you don’t hear people talking about it much. There even seems to be an absence of understanding among therapists, which I have seen first-hand on more than one occasion. I remember one specific group session in hospital, in which a woman completely dissociated. The experienced and highly qualified therapist running the group was inept. She had no idea what to do or what was happening.
What is dissociation?
Dissociation is hard to define, because it means different things to different people. Some researchers say that everyone experiences it to a degree, as it exists on a continuum. For instance, most people who drive have at some point zoned out and switched to autopilot while driving, paying no attention to the detail of their journey.
The kind of dissociation that results from trauma is very different, and can take a range of forms. It can be an experience; the feeling of floating into a daze, or the switch to an entirely different personality or state of mind.
What is trauma-related dissociation?
Dissociation is an amazing survival mechanism the brain uses for defence; a way of blocking out something unbearable. It is a very normal response to overwhelming trauma (by this I mean the perceived threat of annihilation, whether physical or psychological). By shutting down aspects of consciousness, dissociation enables us to survive an event that might otherwise be unbearably painful.
In trauma-related dissociation there is a separation of mental functions which would normally operate together or simultaneously. It results in a failure to connect various elements such as specific memories and emotions. For instance, we may be left with just a visual memory and no recollection of the feelings or emotions we felt at the time.
Dissociated emotions, feelings and memories
Dissociation creates an ‘unintegrated’ experience that can take on a life or identity distinct from our main stream of consciousness. For me, it means that the sexual abuse I suffered is dissociated from my memory. I don’t connect with it as something that actually happened to me. I can get angry or sad about it, but only with a view that it happened to an innocent 10 year old.
Dissociation has been called ‘a way of escaping psychologically when we cannot escape physically’. That makes a lot of sense to me, as there is no way to physically escape from your own thoughts.
It fits with my experience of switching between dissociated parts of myself. I can flip very suddenly from my functional, in-control self to a reckless version of me. She is incredibly self-destructive. She has tried to kill me on several occasions. I often don’t recall completely what has happened when she is in control. Another part is very young and fragile. When she has taken over I can be panicked into complete dissociation – the inability to be present at all in the here-and-now.
This is only a short post on a very large topic. The PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors) website is a great resource on dissociation and dissociative disorders.
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