Dissociation was first described more than a century ago. It was not until more recently, though, that the concept became a standard part of the psychological lexicon. For many people, it is still shrouded in mystery. Terms such as dissociative identity, “dissociative fugue,” or “depersonalization” sound opaque, even intimidating. This can make it difficult for those experiencing dissociation to understand what they are going through and seek appropriate help.
Better-known concepts such as anxiety or depression may be easier to understand because they are extreme versions of universally recognized feelings. Someone who has not struggled with clinical depression or anxiety can fully appreciate how it feels. But to some extent we can extrapolate from common feelings of sadness and nervousness to draw a picture of what these conditions are. By comparison, dissociation may be an alien and unfamiliar experience to many people.
However, while this may not be generally recognized, dissociation is actually something experienced by many—perhaps even the great majority—of people on an occasional basis. Have you ever walked somewhere and got to your destination realizing you remember nothing from the trip? Have you ever been in a boring meeting and found yourself daydreaming, only “awakening” 15 minutes later to find you have no idea what was discussed? Have you been engrossed in a book, only to suddenly realize you can’t remember what you just read? Even if the answer is no, you probably know plenty of people for whom the answer is yes.
All of these are miniature examples of dissociation which occur in day-to-day life. What they share is an experience of detachment, disconnection, or dissociation from the surrounding environment. Such experiences need not be indicative of anything wrong. They may well not even be unpleasant. But when they are frequent, uncontrollable, or a source of distress, they become problematic.
Dissociation is a common response to trauma. Many people who have been through traumatic experiences find that they are temporarily unable to remember what happened, even when they have feelings of fear, anguish, or grief as a result of their experiences. Others have a somewhat opposite experience: they can remember the incident clearly, but they feel detached from it, as if it happened to someone else or they watched it in a movie.
In many cases of posttraumatic stress (PTSD), the person experiences dissociation when confronted by stimuli that remind them of the traumatic experience. They “tune out” of memories that are too painful to confront head-on. In more mild cases, this coping mechanism is not particularly problematic, but it becomes so when dissociation is a habitual response to everyday occurrences. Therapy for PTSD typically consists of adopting strategies to cope with these stimuli without triggering dissociation.
One of the key links between PTSD and complex posttraumatic stress (C-PTSD), dissociation plays a central role in diagnosing and understanding C-PTSD. As I have discussed in other articles, the concept of C-PTSD was developed to understand personality conditions that had many features associated with PTSD.
When the trauma is drawn out over a number of years, dissociation becomes a way of life. Once learned, it is a fixed part of the personality that asserts itself long beyond the original dangers that prompted it.
While similar to PTSD in many ways, C-PTSD has features that make it unique. This pattern of similarity and difference is the product of their overlapping but distinct causes. PTSD is the result of a small number of impersonal dramatic and traumatic incidents (often just one), such as road accidents, witnessing a violent death, or being held hostage. The different pattern of C-PTSD comes from the fact it results from a sustained period of traumatic incidences (which, taken individually, may not be significant enough to produce symptoms of trauma), usually in childhood, which happen at the hands of someone the victim has a personal relationship with—often a primary caregiver such as a parent.
In C-PTSD, dissociation may play an even more crucial role than it does in PTSD. Children are particularly likely to engage in dissociation because of their lower emotional maturity and limited experience. Children have little or no ability to control their situation. They are reliant on caregivers for the primary needs of food, shelter, nurturing, and safety. In response to abusive or disturbing behaviors at home, where active resistance is out of the question, the child will find that the most natural and safe response to cope with the abuse is to detach, to go through these traumatic experiences without really experiencing them.
When the trauma is drawn out over a number of years, dissociation becomes a way of life. Once learned, it is a fixed part of the personality that asserts itself long beyond the original dangers that prompted it. This is an illustration of the principle that C-PTSD is essentially a learning process gone awry as a consequence of the child developing in a dangerous environment.
Forms of dissociation resulting from C-PTSD can be extreme. A common symptom is fragmented personalities. Growing up, the child may have developed different personality states that were called upon in abusive situations. These multiple personalities may persist into adulthood and are triggered by situations reminiscent in some way (often tangentially) of the abusive situation. When these supplementary personalities take over, the person may do things that are out of character for their main state, even things they find abhorrent. In the most extreme cases, these dissociative states may persist for days on end, leaving the person with no memory of what they have been doing during the interval.
Learning to gain control over dissociation and, in particular, mitigate negative effects that may result from dissociative episodes is a central part of therapy for C-PTSD.
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