What Is Trauma-Induced Dissociation?
Dissociation, according to Webster is, “The act or process of dissociating. The separation of an idea or activity from the main stream of consciousness or of behavior especially as a mechanism of ego defense.” In everyday life dissociation is a normal process that most people experience in varying degrees. For example, when driving, one may zone out or arrive at a destination and not remember the experience of getting from point A to point B. Another example would be the deep involvement in watching a movie or video wherein you become so involved you are unaware of what is happening around you.
In times of threat or stressful situations, it is also normal to detach. It is the mind’s way of protecting itself in dangerous situations, such as assault or combat, amongst others. While the body cannot escape, the mind is able to protect itself by dissociation. In the movie The Prince of Tides, one of the characters who experienced severe repeated traumas used dissociation as a coping technique to manage the overwhelming traumas she was exposed to during her earlier years. During the traumas, dissociation shuts out information about physical and emotional pain and even awareness of the traumas itself. Dissociation allowed her to survive and function in the dangerous situations as if nothing was wrong. This can occur in combat situations as well. However, if dissociation takes on a life of its own, interfering with a person’s ability to function on a daily basis, it has become a dissociative disorder.
Some of the symptoms of dissociative disorders include:
Physical stress responses:
· Pseudo or psychogenic seizures: seizures that cannot be medically explained but seem to be related to the traumatic experiences; they may be an unconscious defense against or response to trauma
· Pain: experiencing real pain that has no medical origin
· Conversion: the process of feeling physical pain or discomfort instead of emotional pain and discomfort (e.g., when you get angry, the anger goes away immediately, but you have a migraine instead)
Emotional stress responses:
· Depressed mood: feeling hopeless and/or helpless, unable to enjoy things you used to enjoy and not knowing why
· Rapid mood swings: frequent and sudden changes in mood or emotion that aren’t related to a present experience or event
· Time loss: inability to recall significant periods of time during the day (e.g., getting up at 7 a.m. and then finding yourself at work at 11 a.m. without knowing what went on during the four hours)
· Not remembering behavior: finding evidence of things you must have done, but you don’t remember doing them
· Unexplained possession: finding things you must have bought, but you don’t remember buying them
· Fragmented memories of personal history: inability to remember significant parts of your past
· Fluctuation in skills: you can do some tasks easily sometimes but at other times they are very difficult for you (e.g., sometimes you know how to play the piano, and sometimes you don’t)
Hypnotic stress responses:
· Spontaneous trance: the ability to focus your attention automatically to the point that you lose track of what’s going on around you
· Enthrallment: being so caught up in some form of entertainment (e.g., a movie or book) that you feel as if you are a part of it
· Age regression: feeling like a little child, having the experience that everything else is bigger than you are, feeling much younger than your true age
· Negative hallucinations: the ability to make things “disappear” from your awareness (e.g., if someone is talking loudly, you may be able to concentrate to the point that you no longer hear the person say anything; you may also be able to concentrate so that you can’t see the person)
· Out-of-body experiences: having the experience of floating above your body, of not having a body or that your body is not a part of you, also feeling that you are not real
Mental stress responses:
· Passive influence: feeling controlled from within, watching yourself do things you don’t want to do
· Hallucinations: hearing voices in or outside your head; seeing images in or outside of your head that are related to the voice or the trauma
· Referring to yourself as “we”: feeling like there are “others” inside your head
· Switching: moving into another personality or identity state; going away and letting “someone else” inside take over
If you suffer from these symptoms, you may have a dissociative disorder. Contact a mental health practitioner for evaluation and treatment.