Category Archives: Dissociation And Its Link To Childhood Trauma

Articles about the various ways in which the psychological condition known as dissociation can manifest itself, together with its link to childhood trauma, complex PTSD and borderline personality disorder.

Always ‘Zoning Out’? : Dissociative Disorder Explained.

Zone Out A Lot?

Those of us who experienced significant childhood trauma are at a far greater risk of developing the psychiatric condition known as DISSOCIATIVE DISORDER in adulthood than are the rest of the population.

Unfortunately, however, it often goes unidentified as it can, not infrequently, be misdiagnosed (most commonly as depression).

Not least because the professionals often make mistakes regarding the diagnosis of this condition, it does, of course, go without saying that we can’t diagnose ourselves in relation to dissociative disorder; however, we may gain an insight into whether or not we might be affected by it by asking ourselves if we’ve experienced the following symptoms:

– often ‘zoning out’ and not remembering what’s just happened (e.g. in the middle of a conversation, suddenly realizing one hasn’t taken in what has been said)

night terrors/nightmares

prone to flying into intense rages

– memory problems

distressing, intrusive thoughts and memories

– inability to remember large chunks of childhood (this is one of the symptoms I have. For example, I can remember almost nothing of the first eight years of my life)

– difficulty making decisions

– feelings of being ‘separate’ and ‘distinct’ from own physical body – this can feel as if one is watching oneself as if one were in a movie

– feelings of being emotionally cut off from the world, as if looking out at the world from behind a thick, dark pane of glass (again, I have suffered severely from this. In such a state, one could look at, for example, a beautiful and stunning view yet feel nothing in response to it). This most distressing frame of mind is sometimes referred to as DEREALIZATION; this is because the world can feel ‘unreal.’

– a feeling that part of oneself has ‘shut down‘ or is ‘cut off’ and inaccessible

– a proneness to mood swings

– a tendency to escape into a fantasy world

– an unusually extreme tendency to enter an intense fantasy world as a child, shutting out the real world (in relation to this symptom, as a child, teachers at my prep school thought I had gone deaf as I was so immersed in my own world I did not hear or respond to my own name. This went on, I am told, for several months, although I do not remember this period in my life -see above)

– realizing one has completed a particular task (e.g. the washing up) but having no recollection of doing it

– attacks of panic and anxiety

– insomnia

Although most people experience some of these symptoms some of the time (which would NOT be considered pathological), THE MORE OF THE ABOVE SYMPTOMS A PERSON HAS, AND THE MORE SEVERE THEY ARE, THE MORE LIKELY IT IS THAT THAT PERSON IS SUFFERING FROM DISSOCIATIVE DISORDER ; symptoms of dissociation can be viewed as lying on a spectrum ranging 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 (e.g the last few hours or days)

feeling very out of control (e.g 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 (i.e 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.

 

Overcoming Feelings Of Dissociation :

According to Dr Harold Kushner, author of Healing Dissociation, in order to overcome feelings of dissociation / dissociative disorders it is necessary to :

– gradually, as part of a therapeutic process, come to terms with, and accept, the reality of one’s traumatic childhood experiences (as opposed to being in denial about this, repressing it or suppressing it)

– firmly recognize the traumatic experiences are now over and in the past

– firmly recognize that because the traumatic experiences are over and in the past, how one feels, behaves, thinks and acts no longer has to be constricted by these experiences – one is free to start making fresh choices and take on a new, more positive approach to life

– come to an acceptance that injustice, pain and suffering are inevitable parts of life and that what is of greatest importance is how one responds adapts to this inescapable fact.

– find meaning in one’s experiences of suffering, such as how it has developed one as a person and how it can lead to posttraumatic growth.

 

OTHER ARTICLES ABOUT DISSOCIATION:

 

RETURN HOME TO ABOUT CHILDHOOD TRAUMA RECOVERY.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

Childhood Trauma, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Dissociation.

childhood trauma

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.

images

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.

 

 

eBook :

childhood trauma

Childhood Trauma And Its Link To Borderline Personality Disorder.

Above eBook now available on Amazon for immediate download. CLICK HERE.

David Hosier BSc (Hons); MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

What Is The Difference Between Repression And Dissociation?

the difference between repression and dissociation

I have frequently referred to the concepts of DISSOCIATION and REPRESSION on this site as, of course, both are highly relevant to the subject of childhood trauma. But what is the difference between the two?

REPRESSION :

In terms of psychoanalytic theory (of which Sigmund Freud is considered to be the ‘father’) REPRESSION can be divided into two types :

  1. PRIMAL REPRESSION
  2. REPRESSION PROPER

I briefly explain these two types of repression below :

REPRESSION PROPER :

This refers to an unconscious process whereby the part of the mind that Freud referred to as the ego prevents distressing and threatening thoughts from ever permeating consciousness. Freud believed that often such thoughts were kept banished from conscious awareness as otherwise they would produce intolerable guilt (generated by the part of the mind that he referred to as the superego). 

Examples of types of thoughts that Freud believed are kept repressed by this process are those concerning certain types of sexual and aggressive impulses and instincts (generated by the part of the mind Freud referred to as the id) that we have learned from our environment (influence of culture, parents etc) are unacceptable.

PRIMAL REPRESSION :

The term primal repression refers to an unconscious process whereby the ego buries distressing and threatening thoughts, feelings and memories down below the level of consciousness into the id.

So, to summarize : in the case of repression proper, distressing and threatening thoughts are prevented from ever gaining access to conscious awareness whereas, in the case of primal repression, distressing and threatening thoughts, feelings and memories which have gained ephemeral access to consciousness are banished from it (buried in the id).

However, Freud also pointed out that there is a high price to pay for the unconscious process of repression in so far as this hidden, buried information that has been forced down into the id will create symptoms of anxiety.

DISSOCIATION :

In the case of dissociation (one of the core features of complex PTSD), thoughts / feelings / memories do NOT get pushed down into / buried in the id ; instead, they become separated / compartmentalized in a different part of the ego.

So, we can finally summarize in this way :

  • In the case of repression, mental information / content is split off into the id.
  • In the case of dissociation, mental information / content is split off into a separate part of the ego.

NB : This distinction relates to how the terms are used in psychoanalytic theory ; in other areas of psychology, the term ‘dissociation’ can take on other meanings (as the articles listed below will show).

To learn more about dissociation, you may like to read some of my other articles (listed below) :

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do BPD Sufferers Have A ‘Split Personality’?

do BPD sufferers have a split personality?

do people with BPD have a split personality?

Do BPD Sufferers Have A ‘Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde’ Personality?

In terms of symptoms, there exists a clear overlap between the psychiatric conditions of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and dissociative identity disorder (DID). DID used to be referred to multiple-personality disorder.

Borderline Personality Disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder And ‘Splitting’

‘Splitting’ is a psychological defense mechanism in which one ‘part’ of the personality becomes separated / un-integrated with / isolated from another ‘part’ of the personality. In the case of individuals suffering from BPD, these two parts can, in simple terms, be described as PART ONE and PART TWO, where :

PART ONE represents the part of the person’s personality which is relatively accepting of him/herself and others

whereas :

PART TWO represents the part of the person’s personality which is full of self-hatred, as well as anger and hostility (and, underlying the latter two emotions, fear of being psychologically harmed) in relation to others.

When PART ONE is ‘operational’, it tends to enter a state of denial about the existence of PART TWO.

This may be because when PART ONE is ‘in charge’, the individual develops a state of mind similar to amnesia regarding  the existence PART TWO ; alternatively, the denial may be underpinned by feelings of profound shame. However, more research needs to be conducted in relation to these possibilities.

‘Splitting’ and amnesia (when one part of the personality is unaware of how another part of the personality has manifested itself) are also symptoms of dissociative identity disorder.

do BPD sufferers have a split personality?

Borderline Personality Disorder And ‘Switching’ Between ‘Part One’ And ‘Part Two’

As stated above, ‘PART ONE’ and ‘PART TWO’ have become un-intergrated in the personality of individuals suffering from BPD (the BPD sufferers personality, in this respect, may be described as having ‘disintegrated’). A more formal way to put this would be to describe the BPD sufferer as having an un-integrated ego-state (in contrast to the relatively integrated ego-state that psychologically ‘healthy’ individuals enjoy).

Those with BPD ‘switch’ between ‘PART ONE’ and ‘PART TWO’ and this can occur quite suddenly (but is not usually dramatically instantaneous).

Furthermore, these un-integrated ego-states interfere with each other (because they are not completely separate from one another) and this may cause symptoms such as the following :

 

How ‘Splitting’ Affects The BPD Sufferer’s Relationships With Others :

When ‘PART ONE’ is ‘in charge’, the BPD sufferer desires emotional attachments with others. However, when ‘PART TWO’ is dominant, s/he becomes hostile towards others and withdraws from them – this leads to the classic ‘love-hate’ scenario.

 

Why Does This Unintegrated Ego-State Arise In Those Suffering From BPD?

The two separate parts can develop in a person who has suffered severe and prolonged abuse as a child.

When the abused child becomes an adult, PART TWO (hostility etc) can be kept in abeyance for much of the time to allow daily social functioning. However, PART ONE makes itself apparent when the BPD sufferer is reminded of the abuse s/he suffered as a child (such a reminder is called a ‘trigger’).

This reminder/trigger may be detected by the BPD sufferer consciously or unconsciously and occurs as a defense mechanism against real or perceived psychological threat (especially the treat of betrayal, rejection or abandonment as occurred in the individual’s childhood).

If the individual had not developed this defense mechanism as a child, s/he faced what may reasonably be termed as ‘psychological destruction.’ In other words, the development of the ‘splitting’ defense mechanism makes complete evolutionary sense as it allowed the individual to survive childhood – it is a normal, predictable, adaptive response to childhood loss, fear, distress and betrayal.

 

Conclusion ;

There is an overlap between symptoms of borderline personality disorder and dissociative identity disorder in as far as they both involve ‘splitting’ and ‘dissociating‘. However, in the case of DID, the separation between the different PARTS of personality are MORE DISTINCT AND CLEAR CUT THAN THEY ARE IN THE CASE BPD. Those suffering from DID may have more than two un-integrated / separate PARTS of their personality / ego-state ; however, arguably, this can also be the case in those suffering from BPD (although this is beyond the scope of this article).

In conclusion, though, we can say, with some confidence, that BPD sufferers do have a ‘split personality’, but the division between these two parts is more nebulous than in the case of DID sufferers.

RETURN TO BPD AND CHILDHOOD TRAUMA MAIN ARTICLE

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Overcoming Emotional Numbness

narcissistic_mothers

Inevitably, a sense of loss accompanies the experience of childhood trauma, which, in turn, can manifest itself by leaving us with a constant feeling of EMOTIONAL NUMBNESS.

Whilst highly unpleasant, the feeling of emotional numbness is, essentially, a psychological defense mechanism enabling us to avoid certain feelings that would otherwise attach themselves to events and circumstances which remind us of our trauma. Because such feelings would be overwhelmingly painful, we (subconsciously) ‘shut them down’  and enter a protective state of dissociation.

In this way, we may no longer experience strong feelings in relation to people and events that were important to us before we experienced our trauma.

Indeed, this feeling of emotional numbness can be extremely persistent and long-lasting – so much so, in fact, that we may feel that we have been permanently changed or damaged.

It is not unusual, too, for feelings of grief to accompany this numbness, as well as irrational feelings of shame and guilt.

Often, also, we feel closed off – as if there is a kind of thick sheet of almost opaque glass between us and the rest of the world which cannot be penetrated. We may refuse to talk about our experiences and avoid friends and social situations. In this way, our day-to-day functioning can become significantly impaired.

emotional_numbness

Above – severe depression will often accompany feelings of emotional numbness

RECOGNITION OF THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM :

Recognizing that these symptoms are connected to our experience of trauma is the first step on the journey to recovery. When we feel closed off and empty, it is necessary for us to ask ourselves, ‘What is it that I am trying to avoid? What emotion that I am afraid of is my mind trying to protect me from?’

Often , the answer is love, trust and emotional pain. We fear that if we allow ourselves to open ourselves up to the possibility of feeling such things they will overwhelm and destroy us.

Indeed, as a further defense against making ourselves vulnerable, we may have become bitter and cynical.

Other Causes Of Emotional Numbness :

These include :

depression

anxiety

acute stress

posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

complex PTSD

medications (especially those taken for anxiety and depression – N.B. Always consult an appropriate professional when considering starting or stopping a course of medication).

Emotional Numbness, Stress And The Limbic System :

The LIMBIC SYSTEM is the part of the brain that is involved with how we experience our emotions and, when we are under severe and prolonged stress, the stress hormones that our body generates as a result can overwhelm this system and adversely affect its functioning which, in turn, can have profound implications for our mood and what we feel, including making as feel ’emotionally deadened.’

THE SOLUTION:

The solution will frequently lie in, very gradually, re-exposing ourselves to the possibility of opening ourselves up to such feelings again. It is important, in this regard, to take very small, baby steps and to avoid immediately plunging ourselves into a situation which could potentially trigger intense emotions.

Indeed, if, whilst taking such steps, we begin to feel overwhelmed, it is likely that we are attempting to progress too quickly, or that we may need to acquire professional support to help us to cope with our recovery attempt (recovery itself can be very painful). In this regard, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often effective.

 

N.B. Remember : emotional numbness can also be a symptom of PTSD and complex PTSD.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

Structural Dissociation Theory

structural dissociation theory

Structural dissociation theory was developed by Van der Hart, Nijenhuis and Steele (2006).

 

Essentially, this theory relates to the idea that many of the behaviors that you may feel uncomfortable about, ashamed of, guilty about, or hate are likely to be the behaviors you unconsciously learned as a child to survive in an environment which was hostile, unpredictable, threatening and unsafe. In the present, these behaviors are likely to be triggered by any occurrences or events which, even remotely, resemble the events which once threatened your safety (psychological or physical) as a child.

In other words, the vulnerable, frightened child continues to live within you, trapped in the past, and responding to events now as if they (or, rather, what these events symbolize) were happening then (during your traumatic childhood).

These behaviors, then, can be seen as adaptations : behaviors that allowed you, as a child, to survive; I repeat : they are the legacy of the child within you that, under extreme circumstances, managed to survive and, as such, should cause neither guilt nor shame. THE BEHAVIORS WERE ESSENTIAL AS A MEANS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL SELF-PROTECTION.

 

Structural Dissociation Theory In Terms Of Neurobiology :

In terms of neurobiology (the physical/biological workings of the brain) the theory states that when events occur that we find threatening (on either a conscious or unconscious level) because they trigger implicit memories of our traumatic childhood :

the right half (hemisphere) of the brain and the left half (hemisphere) of the brain become disconnected to a degree that they no longer communicate with one another in an effective manner.

 

What Are The Functions Of The Left And Right Hemispheres Of The Brain ?

For the sake of simplicity,we can confine ourselves to the functions most pertinent to the theory :

  • The brain’s left hemisphere is involved with day-to-day functioning and is relatively logical, permitting us to struggle on despite internal, mental conflict.
  • The brain’s right hemisphere ‘contains’ the responses that you were forced, by extreme and hostile circumstance, to learn as a child in order to ensure psychological survival, including hypervigilance for imminent danger and perpetual readiness for fight/flight/freezing/fawning – whatever was necessary to avert danger (real or perceived).

structural dissociation theory

Splitting / Fragmentation :

The personality of the individual who has experienced severe childhood trauma can become split / fragmented so that when events occur that cause stress / fear / make the individual feel threatened / remind the individual, however tenuously (on a conscious or unconscious level), of their childhood trauma the responses stored in the brain’s right hemisphere are triggered (fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses) whereas the brain’s left hemisphere guides ‘normal’ everyday behavior, allowing the person, to some degree at least, to function. To simplify :

  • Stress, threat, fear etc / implicit reminders of childhood trauma = right hemisphere dominant
  • Everyday functioning = left hemisphere dominant

Compartmentalization and Self-Alienation :

Whilst such compartmentalization may allow our day-to-day functioning to continue under one guise or another, there is, however, a price to be paid : the individual can suffer from intense feelings of self-alienation, self-loathing,  shame (that s/he is ‘concealing’ a ‘secret, bad,’ self) and a sense of being a ‘fake’ and ‘fraudulent’ person.

My next article (Part Two) will look at how we might best overcome this problem.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

Types Of Dissociative Amnesia In Complex PTSD

dissociative amnesia

types of dissociative amnesia

We have seen how the cumulative effect of repetitive and chronic, traumatic stress during childhood is associated with the later development of complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD) and that many of those afflicted by complex PTSD experience symptoms of dissociation (e,g. Freyd, 1996 ; Peclovitz et al., 1997). [Click here to read my previously published post : SYMPTOMS OF DISSOCIATION : MILD AND SEVERE.]

We have also seen how dissociative symptoms may manifest themselves in different ways and that one such way is DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA.

In this article, I intend to briefly recap on what is meant by the term DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA, including a short outline of the DIFFERENT TYPES OF DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA.

 

WHAT IS DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA? :

If an individual is suffering from dissociative amnesia, it means that they are unable, for a period of time (usually relatively short periods of time such as minutes, hours or days, but, in mush less frequent cases, months or even years), to remember information about themselves / events in their past (sometimes referred to as autobiographical memory). And, perhaps more surprisingly, they may have periods of time during which they fail to remember a skill or talent that they have learnt (sometimes referred to as semantic memory).

For such memory loss to be diagnosed as dissociative amnesia the memory loss must be far more severe than in ‘normal forgetting’ and not accounted for by another medical condition.

dissociative amnesia

THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA :

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), dissociative amnesia can be subdivided into the following types :

  • localized
  • selective 
  • generalized
  • systematized

Let’s look at each of these in turn :

 

1. LOCALIZED :

This involves not being able to remember a specific period of time. Often, this period of time will be the first few hours after the traumatic event has occurred (including the traumatic event itself) and can occur as the result of an isolated traumatic episode.

 

2. SELECTIVE :

This involves not being able to remember some (but NOT all) of the events that occurred during a specific (traumatizing) period of time (often, this may be the most traumatic aspects of the events which occurred during this time period),

 

3. GENERALIZED :

This particularly alarming and devastating form of dissociative amnesia occurs when the individual afflicted by it is unable to remember their ENTIRE LIFE including, remarkably, who they are and where they are from. Fortunately, this extreme form of dissociative amnesia is very rare.

 

4. SYSTEMATIZED :

This type of dissociative amnesia involves being unable to recall information associated with a particular category such as being unable to recall any memories associated with one’s abusive parent or associated with a particular location where one was traumatized. For example, I have virtually no memory of living in my first or second house which incorporated the years between my birth and my being about eight years old when my parents divorced.

 

To learn more about DISSOCIATION, you may wish to read one or more of my other posts on the topic (shown below):

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

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