Those of us who experienced significant childhood trauma are at a far higher 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 (for example, in the middle of a conversation, suddenly realising one hasn’t taken in what has been said)
- night terrors and 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 their 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 (concerning 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)
- realising one has completed a particular task (for example, the washing up) but having no recollection of doing it
- attacks of panic and anxiety
- 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:
- obsessive self-scrutiny and obsession with the symptoms that one is experiencing
- not feeling alive
- a feeling of just going through the motions
- a disturbance in the sense of time
- preoccupied with fear of going mad or of becoming very ill
- macropsia and micropsia: falsely perceiving that objects have changed their size and shape
- people and objects seem a long way away
- a constant feeling of anxiety and dread
- objects seem to be drained of colour and vividness (everything seems ‘grey’ and ‘colourless)
Mild symptoms include:
- feeling in a daze (sometimes referred to as ‘mind fog’),
- feeling utterly exhausted, numb and soporific for no apparent reason,
- finding oneself tongue-tied when trying to talk about painful experiences (as if experiencing a kind of mental block).
More severe symptoms include:
- amnesia for certain events, or large periods, 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 himself in a particular place, with no memory of how 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 (for example, 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;, though, the cause was deep psychological trauma. This is certain as it became apparent this ‘deafness’ only occurred when the class was discussing parents or family matters or associated topics).
Biological Aspects Of Dissociation
- decreases in blood pressure
- a decrease in heart rate / increased heart rate variability
- reduced skin conductivity
- reduced skeletal muscle tone
- failure of fight-flight sympathetic stress response leading to an increase in the activity of primitive vagal parasympathetic system which, in turn, gives rise to the ‘freeze response’ (Porges)
- increased pain threshold
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’.
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 (e.g. Benner, 1984, Berman, 1981, Loewenstein, 2018) suggest that nearly all people who suffer such switching have experienced severe early life trauma.
When a person switches due to stress, they switch from the ego state that s/he relies on for his/her day-to-day functioning to the ego state that is typically dissociated or ‘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 Silberg (2013) 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 recognise 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 highest importance is how one responds and 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.
- Benner, D., & Joscelyne, B., (1984). Multiple personality as a borderline state. JOURNAL OF NERVOUS MENTAL DISEASE, 172
- Berman, E. (1981).Multiple personality; Psychoanalytic perspectives. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PSYCHOANALYSIS, 62
- Loewenstein, R., Dissociation Debates: Everything you know is wrong. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience.2018 Sept 20(3)PMCID: PMC6296396
- Porges, S.,The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology)W. W. Norton, 25 Apr 2011
- Silberg, The Child Survivor: Healing Developmental Trauma and Dissociation. Kindle edition. 2013
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.