Trauma & Dissociation
Trauma and dissociation are characterized by a disruption in the usual integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, and/or perception. Here are some examples of dissociation when related to surviving trauma. Your memories are recalled with little or no accompanying feelings or emotions. In other words, you feel detached the memories; there is a cognitive dissonance as if they didn’t really happen to you. You experience overwhelming feelings and sensations that seem to come up out of the blue, with little conscious awareness of their cause. You lack a strong sense of a coherent life story, for parts of, or all of your life. You struggle with having a sense of identity, feeling often confused and without a sense of self – ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What has happened to me?’
Dissociation is a creative, and at the time of trauma, a very adaptive, survival mechanism in the face of overwhelming distress. The mind protects itself by fragmenting the experience, or splitting it off from your full awareness, into parts or segments rather than experiencing the intensity of the ‘whole’.
The Trauma & Dissociation Spectrum
PTSD – Borderline Personality – Complex PTSD – Dissociative Disorders
Expanding upon this spectrum, when trauma is left unresolved in our bodies and minds, it can lead to mental health issues. It may start with anxiety disorders, which certainly have a high prevalence of certain types of dissociation – such as: depersonalization. Depersonalization can range from mild to severe, yet feels as if we, or our energy, is not able to stay in our bodies, leaving us ungrounded and anxious. The next level is single event PTSD, or post-traumatic stress after an overwhelming traumatic event. Dissociation along this spectrum tends to be moderate to severe. The next level moves us into what we often see in borderline- traits or -personality, as well as complex trauma (C-PTSD). Of which are characterized more by recurrent traumatic experiences, most likely from childhood and beyond, that were often relational in nature. On this continuum and throughout the spectrum, also coincides, or co- occurs with eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, and addictive disorders. From my clinical experience these disorders are complicated and most that suffer moderately or severely do so after experiencing recurring traumas, whether they recognize it as trauma or not. At the far left end is the dissociative disorders that understandably have more severe dissociation from enduring recurring childhood abuse and/neglect.
The Protective Essence of Dissociation
Dissociation, at the time of traumas, is not a bad thing. It is a life saving and adaptive responce to situations we are unable to fully process. It is protective and when we continue to experiences trauma, it is necessary to protect us. It becomes maladaptive when it is frozen in, becomes our go to responce, and is not longer needed. More about dissociation:
‘Dissociating’ or ‘splitting’ off from trauma experiences – in time, splitting off from ‘parts’ of self that hold trauma
Dissociation is a creative coping mechanism
Becomes dysfunctional when trauma is no longer happening, the dissociated “parts” are stuck in “trauma time”
Creates recurrent gaps in recall of everyday events
Reality of Chronic Dissociation
In reality, the majority of trauma survivors do not present as if they are dissociative. Instead they present with post-traumatic stress symptoms coupled with: depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, obsessive thinking, and/or compulsions.
A problem is that many who suffer from chronic trauma and dissociation do not get the help they need, staying hidden, likely due to shame and an attempt to conceal symptoms. Many trauma and dissociative survivors are high functioning members of society, and do not get help until the build-up of stressors and traumas turn into a catastrophic ‘breakdown’. By which time they end up greatly suffering from chronic and severe physical, mental, relationship, and spiritual problems. And others spend a great deal of time in mental health system and do not receive effective help, thus not stabilizing, establishing desired careers, and/or healthy relationships.
All humans have ‘parts’ of our personality and psyche. Yet, trauma and dissociative survivors’ parts are separated from their sense of self and hold overwhelming traumatic experiences. The parts take on extreme behaviors based on survival; thus, the body and mind are stuck in chronic fight, flight, freeze, and/or collapse defenses.