The Role of Dissociation in Trauma
All human beings dissociate and dissociation is adaptive. Dissociation is just one of many effects of trauma and a specialty topic Discovering MErcy helps address.
Dissociation is a disruption of the normal integration of experience. When a person uses dissociation as a defense mechanism, it is how a person organizes incoming information of life. This term is often misunderstood--if you break down the word and its prefix, it is: Dis (apart, or away from) Sociation (meaning to associate or to be connected.)
God has given our minds the ability to dissociate. Dissociation is when you divide attention into two or more streams of consciousness. Like when we are mowing our grass and are bored with the task ahead of us and then we are surprised that we only have one more pass on the lawn to finish cutting the grass. It is 'highway hypnosis' on a long trip surprised that we went through two tunnels and 40 miles as we see the sign for our exit coming up. While we are glad that we are almost at our destination, it can be a bit unnerving that we don’t remember the trip in any detail.
Dissociation compartmentalizes information and affect (emotion). When a child experiences traumatic events that are unsurvivable, the child will learn how to organize the sensory information from these events by NOT having the events stored in the mind together to hold the memory intact as well as NOT having overwhelming emotions of the events connected to the child him/herself.
Another dissociative function or ability is to alter identity or create distance from self. (Putnam, 1999) A child surviving recurrent traumatic events will create another self to separate from what is unsurvivable and from what does not make sense. When a little girl has a bad daddy that hurts her at night she will create a little girl that “knows” about the bad happening and she will create another little girl that goes to school and does “not know”. The little girl that does “not know” can learn her ABC’s and interact with the other children at school. This use of dissociation by creating distance from self by creating “another” protects the child.
When a child endures traumatic events, a God-given gift of dissociation helps the child survive what is unsurvivable. However, God never intended us to live out of defense mechanisms, which are given to us to help us survive, but a defense mechanism is not sustainable to live for an entire life. The child solution of dissociation eventually becomes an adult's problem. And that problem is what originally helped a child survive to keep a child’s mind safe no longer works. Eventually, a child becomes an adult and needs to learn how to grieve losses, understand emotions, develop emotional regulating skills, and live out of their heart---not a defense mechanism.
Symptoms and signs of dissociative disorders include:
- Significant memory loss of specific times, people and events
- Out-of-body experiences, such as feeling as though you are watching a movie of yourself
- Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide
- A sense of detachment from your emotions, or emotional numbness
- A lack of a sense of self-identity
- Dissociative disorders usually develop as a way of dealing with trauma. Dissociative disorders most often form in children exposed to long-term physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Natural disasters and combat can also cause dissociative disorders.
For more information, read Dissociation Isn't a Life Skill by Sandra L. Brown M.A.
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