I have previously published articles on this site articles explaining the connection between childhood trauma and borderline personality disorder (BPD). An important symptom of BPD is DISSOCIATION, which this article will examine in greater detail.
Dissociation is generally considered to be a COPING MECHANISM in response to severe trauma (including, of course, childhood trauma) or stress. The phenomenon of dissociation can involve feeling disconnected from one’s emotions, one’s memories, one’s thoughts or even from reality itself.
Dissociation is, essentially, a way of ‘mentally escaping’ from the stressful situation, or memory of the stressful situation, by changing one’s state of consciousness (this often occurs automatically and without intention). sometimes people describe the experience of dissociation as a feeling of psychological ‘numbness.’ or ‘deadness.’
In situations of terror, one may dissociate, and, paradoxically, feel a detached state of calm. It may feel, too, that the traumatic event is not happening to oneself, but that one is ‘observing the traumatic event from outside of the body’, leading to passivity and emotional detachment.
Dissociative feelings of ‘being outside of oneself’ are described as DEPERSONALIZATION and dissociative feelings of being disconnected from reality are described as DEREALIZATION.
Some experts have described dissociation as working a bit like morphine – dampening down emotional and physical pain. However, the exact biological mechanisms are that underpin the dissociative experience are yet to be fully explained.
The four main types of dissociation are:
1) DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA
2) DISSOCIATIVE IDENTITY DISORDER
3) DISSOCIATIVE FUGUE
4) DEPERSONALIZATION DISORDER
Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail:
1) Dissociative Amnesia: here, large parts of, or all, the traumatic event/s cannot be remembered.
2) Dissociative Identity Disorder: this is also known as MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER. Here, the person adopts two or more distinct, utterly different personas. The different personas talk in different voices, use different vocabularies etc (they can also actually differ in handedness). The different personas do not have access to ‘each others” memories, studies have shown, so they have distinct ‘personal histories’. It is likely that each persona represents a different strategy for coping with stress.
3) Dissociative Fugue: in this state, individuals can disconnect from their previous personalities, and, then, often, travel far from home to take on, and live under, a completely new persona. They may appear normal to others who have never met them before, even though they are living under a completely new identity, having left a whole life and set of memories behind.
4) Depersonalization Disorder: in this state, individuals can feel detached from their bodies or experiences. A phrase I read in a novel recently may aptly illustrate the sensation: ‘it’s like living in a dream underwater.’
A large number of people who have suffered extreme childhood trauma report experiencing such automatic dissociative states. Furthermore, they may often seek to induce dissociative states, deliberately and artificially, as a way of escaping the constant psychological pain resulting from the initial trauma by, for example, USING ALCOHOL TO EXCESS, USING NARCOTICS, SELF-HARMING or GAMBLING. The kinds of psychological state from which the individual is seeking to escape through dissociation include INSOMNIA, NIGHTMARES, FEELINGS OF RAGE and INTENSE ANXIETY.
LONG-TERM PROBLEMS OF DISSOCIATION:
Dissociation may be helpful (adaptive) in the short-term but problems develop when the state persists long after it has served any beneficial purpose. The psychologist, Lifton, described prolonged states of ‘psychic numbing’ and ‘mental paralysis’ often resulting from a dissociative response to severe trauma. This can make even basic day-to-day functioning extremely problematic and requires professional intervention.
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David Hosier BSc (Hons); MSc; PGDE(FAHE).