If we have suffered significant childhood trauma, we may, as adults, frequently find ourselves in various states of dissociation, ranging from mild to severe. Indeed, dissociation is a key feature of complex posttraumatic stress disorder (Cptsd).
What Is Meant By The Term ‘Dissociation’?
Dissociation is a symptom of the effects of childhood trauma which we developed as a defense mechanism in order to better equip us to cope with the emotionally painful and destructive environment in which we grew up. It is a way of mentally escaping and psychologically cutting off from reality; it is sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘zoning out’ or ‘tuning out’.
Dissociation And Flooding :
We are particularly likely to dissociate when we feel overwhelmed, or ‘flooded’, by stress and psychological threat. Symptoms of dissociation can range from mild to severe. I outline examples of such symptoms below:
Mild symptoms include:
– feeling in a daze (sometimes referred to as ‘mind fog’),
– feeling utterly exhausted, numb and soporific for no obvious reason,
– finding oneself tongue-tied when trying to talk about difficult experiences (as if experiencing a kind of mental block).
More severe symptoms include:
– amnesia for certain events, or large periods of time, in one’s life (for example, I have no memory whatsoever of large chunks of my childhood) – such ‘dissociative amnesia’ far exceeds normal forgetfulness.
– time loss : an individual may suddenly find him/herself in a particular place, with no memory of how s/he got there, unable to remember anything that has occurred in the recent past (eg the last few hours or days)
– feeling very out of control (eg uncontrollably angry)
– periods of apparent deafness (at my first school, when things were at their worst at home between my parents, at times I did not respond to my name being called out in class – the school thought I was suffering from deafness; in fact, though, the cause was deep psychological trauma. This is certain as it became apparent this ‘deafness’ only occurred when the class was discussing parents/family matters or associated topics).
Dissociation And Switching:
Some people dissociate when under extreme stress (ie when ‘flooded’, see above) in a way that almost resembles ‘changing personality’; this is referred to as ‘switching’.
In fact, it is NOT a literal switch of personality, but a switch of ego states/states of consciousness sometimes referred to by psychologists as ‘parts’ or ‘alters.’
Studies suggest that nearly all people who suffer such switching have experienced severe early life trauma. It is NOT a genetic disorder.
When a person switches due to stress, they switch from the ego state/state of consciousness/part/alter that s/he relies on for his/her day-to-day functioning to the ego state/state of consciousness/part/alter that is normally dissociated/’kept in a separate compartment’ in mind (it is this separation that allows the individual to function daily, by preventing the feelings in the dissociated part from interfering in it).
This dissociated part contains profoundly painful trauma related feelings such as fear, shame and anger.
Can dissociation be treated?
The short answer is, YES.
Individuals can be helped by becoming aware of the link between their childhood trauma and the dissociated part of their mind that they switch to when under severe stress.
As well as this, individuals suffering from dissociation can be enormously helped by learning the skills of mindfulness. Mindfulness, essentially, helps a person to live in the present/the ‘here and now’, rather than staying trapped in the past.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).