Dissociation, which is sometimes referred to as a “mental getaway,” is a state that most commonly occurs as a result of trauma when a person is unable to physically flee or becomes too emotionally overburdened to cope. In dissociation, a person loses contact with their ideas, feelings, memories, behaviors, bodily sensations, or sense of identity.
It can result from many kinds of trauma, but for those with dissociative disorders, childhood trauma is a frequent trigger. Though these reactions are frequently brief, dissociation may last longer in circumstances involving high or ongoing stress.
Trauma is defined as an unpleasant, frightful, or disturbing experience that leaves the victim feeling deeply shocked or unhappy. Shock and denial are frequent feelings after an incident. Reactions can eventually result in unstable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical pain like headaches or nausea.
Trauma is a reaction that persists after being exposed to a stressful event. A traumatic experience can harm a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, capacity for emotional regulation, and capacity for navigating social situations.
The Link between Trauma and Dissociation
Trauma has a complex impact on a person, and every individual has a unique way of handling stress. Two people can react completely differently to the same stressful event.
One of the most common and noticeable trauma responses is dissociation. It occurs more frequently in cases of severe physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse or grave neglect. It’s important to understand that dissociation is a defense mechanism the mind employs to cope with the stress of a traumatic event.
Traumatic events and/or repeated exposure to trauma can lead to dissociation (such as trauma that takes place in the setting of interpersonal relationships). Dissociation can have an impact on memory, identity, how the world is experienced, and the link to the physical body.
What does dissociation feel like?
Cognitive dissociations between your thoughts, memories, and deeds are referred to as disassociation. Additionally, it may have an impact on your sense of self and change how you see the world. It is a defining sign of dissociative disorders. However, in addition to other symptoms, people with a variety of mental and physical problems can also have dissociative experiences.
Daydreaming or “zoning out,” which is similar to losing yourself in a book, movie, or moment of meditation, or simply stopping to be aware of your surroundings, are mild kinds of dissociation.
A severe dissociative disorder leaves a person feeling utterly shut off from the outer world and devoid of any sense of self. “Being ‘outside the pilot’s chair, gazing at, but not altering, the instruments” has been used to describe the effect.
Types of Dissociations
There are mainly three types of dissociative disorders:
1. Dissociative Amnesia: It means losing knowledge of one’s past experiences and self. A person may occasionally be unable to recall specifics about oneself, past experiences, or a learned talent or skill.
These memory lapses are much more severe than ordinary forgetfulness and are unconnected to any other medical condition. Some people with dissociative amnesia wake up in strange places without being able to remember how they got there.
2. Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder: Feeling cut off from one’s own body and thoughts, as well as one’s surroundings that seem unreal, as if in a dream, with body parts feeling smaller or not real.
Depersonalization can also be a symptom of the following mental health issues:
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
3. Dissociative Identity Disorder: Formerly known as multiple personality disorder, a person with DID could be unclear about their identity. They might perceive other personas with their names, voices, histories, and mannerisms. DID’s primary symptoms include memory lapses concerning both personal and commonplace events, as well as having numerous distinct identities.
Symptoms of Dissociation
Dissociative disorders typically arise in response to trauma and serve to block out unpleasant memories. The type of dissociative disorder one has can influence the symptoms, which can range from forgetfulness to alternate identities. Stressful situations might momentarily exacerbate symptoms, making them more noticeable.
One may experience the following indications depending on the type of dissociative illness:
Cloudy sense of who you are
Memory loss of specific times, events, people, and personal information
Feeling cut off from yourself and your emotions
Believing people and things around you to be distorted and unreal
Significant stress or problems in relationships, at work, or in other areas of your life
Poor ability to handle stressful situations
Not every person who goes through a bad situation will develop trauma. Some people only experience transient symptoms, while others experience persistent symptoms.
A traumatized person may feel a range of emotions both immediately after the tragedy and years later. It may be difficult for them to process their feelings, or they may feel dominated, helpless, stunned, or overwhelmed. Trauma can cause physical problems too.
A person’s health may suffer long-term injury as a result of a traumatic event. Post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition brought on by trauma, may have developed if symptoms continue and don’t get worse.
Types of Trauma
Trauma can take many different forms including:
Acute Trauma: This happens as a result of a single traumatic or risky experience.
Chronic Trauma: Repeated exposure to stressful events over time, it includes child abuse, bullying, or domestic violence, to name a few examples.
Complex Trauma: This happens when a person is exposed to numerous traumatic situations.
Secondary/Vicarious Trauma: This occurs when a person experiences close contact with someone who has gone through a terrible incident and then begins to exhibit trauma symptoms.
Vicarious trauma can happen to family members, mental health professionals, and other caretakers of those who have been through terrible events. The signs frequently resemble PTSD.
How Trauma can lead to Dissociation
Trauma is a strong emotional reaction to a terrible occurrence. During trauma, dissociation can play a crucial role in your survival mechanism. Dissociation is a component of the fight-or-flight response, an uncontrollable survival network that aids in defending us against danger.
This response is triggered by distressing encounters and is meant to defend the person. The freeze response is triggered if fight-or-flight is not an option or if it stops working because of physical exhaustion. You might feel disconnected during the “freeze response”.
You essentially sever contact between your brain and body to survive the experience since there are no other options. Dissociation can occur even after the trauma has passed, interfering with your regular life.
It’s not surprising that trauma causes us to experience intense mental and physical symptoms because trauma can alter the structure and function of the brain.
Effects of Dissociation on Trauma Recovery
You may try not to think about the horrible things you see or experience. Children are particularly prone to using dissociation to cope with the unavoidable agony of family issues that result in complex, relational, and developmental trauma.
Consistent abuse, neglect, or a disorganized, avoidant, or insecure attachment style are examples of such issues. Children must take action to get through uncomfortable situations that make them feel unsafe. To cope, they cut themselves off from painful memories, emotions, and bodily sensations.
They might appear to be fine from the outside. However, they continue to dissociate constantly as a form of defense or survival until adulthood, when it is less effective. When the abuse is no longer occurring in the present, dissociation frequently gets in the way of the life a person wants to live.
Importance of Addressing Trauma and Dissociation in Treatment
A powerful coping mechanism that emerges in the wake of trauma is dissociation. Through trauma therapy and dissociation, you can discover new ways to respond to whatever is going on in your life.
The first step to recovery is realizing that dissociation is occurring. A therapist can help you understand how this happens in your body and mind, explore the emotions and memories associated with it, and start developing coping techniques such as
You can connect with the present and avoid dissociation by:
5: Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you.
4: Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you.
3: Acknowledge THREE things you hear.
2: Acknowledge TWO things you can smell.
1: Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste.
Mindfulness: When a person learns to live in the now, dissociation can be significantly reduced.
Practice Breathing: Deep breathing techniques can be utilized to ease the internal survival network that might be the cause of dissociation and lessen its intensity.
Psychotherapy: Your doctor may recommend it to help you manage dissociation. Its modes of operation include:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): It aids in recognizing and altering harmful beliefs and behaviors.
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT): It assists people to manage their emotions and stop engaging in harmful behaviors.
Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR): A type of CBT in which visual activities are used to alleviate psychological distress.
Medications: No drugs have been licensed to treat dissociation. But doctors may prescribe antidepressants, sleep aids, or anxiety medications for dissociation symptoms related to mood, anxiety, or sleep. They might suggest taking an antipsychotic if dissociation is brought on by a mental condition like schizophrenia.
Novel Strategies: You can better control dissociation symptoms by learning strategies to deal with stress or concern as these conditions can occasionally be their root. Some strategies are:
i. Relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety
ii. Healthy diet to lessen stress
iii. Getting enough sleep each night
iv. Regular physical activity
v. Identifying and managing dissociation triggers
vi. Using grounding techniques to get back to the present
Recap of the connection between Trauma and Dissociation
Dissociative disorders can be brought on by a single, catastrophic incidence of trauma in infants or adults, but the majority are brought on by ongoing abuse, generally beginning in infancy.
Dissociative disorders and trauma, particularly childhood abuse and/or neglect, have a strong and important reciprocal relationship. It’s thought to be the main factor in at least 90% of instances causing the development of dissociative disorders.
Importance of Seeking Help for Trauma and Dissociation
Major dissociation may worsen over time if the person does not seek care. It could be challenging for you to feel secure or to keep up a long-term connection. You can start to doubt who you are, have trouble recalling the events, or have trouble being in the present.
Lack of awareness also puts one in danger on a physical level. You can cross over traffic without looking if you have memory loss or become unaware of your surroundings.
Both adults and children will continue to suffer from detrimental impacts on their personal and professional lives, along with their general health and happiness, as long as mental health illnesses exist.
Everybody experiences a dissociative experience, such as daydreaming, which is normal and healthy. However, if dissociative experiences are extremely powerful, frequently upsetting, and may involve losing touch with reality or one’s identity, then they’re worrisome and merit counseling.