What is trauma-related dissociation?
Trauma-related dissociation is a process which involves disconnection between our conscious awareness and various aspects of our experiences, thoughts, feelings, memories, behaviours, perception and sense of identity. Dissociation can be seen as a way the mind copes to protect itself from overwhelming stress. When it occurs as a result of trauma, we can understand it is a type of freeze (hypo-arousal) response – a protective survival response. It has been described as the ‘escape when there is no escape’ and a way that a person under threat can be consciously not present or switch out of the situation. The most important thing to remember is that dissociation is a ‘normal response to an abnormal situation’.
Dissociation often occurs at the time and resolves. However, when trauma is extreme, ongoing and occurs in childhood, dissociation can become habitual and last longer. When this happens, it can be frightening for the person as well as for the people around them. People for whom dissociation became more usual as a child can dissociate repeatedly when they feel threatened, as an adult. It is important to validate that dissociation helped them to survive and support them to understand it as much as possible.
Triggers, flashbacks and dissociation
Sometimes people are triggered by a sight, sound, smell, taste, touch or something which is in some way reminiscent of their trauma. This trigger can cause a person with trauma experiences to dissociate. Sometimes triggers can cause a flashback in which people are thrown back into a traumatic experience of the past reliving it as if it is in the present. Sometimes people experiencing a flashback can relive memories, which they had previously dissociated.
Just as people are individuals so people’s experiences of dissociation are individual.
What might happen when you dissociate?
• You might feel disconnected or detached from your body or emotions – as if your body, parts of it or emotions don’t belong to you or as if you are observing it from afar or watching it on TV
• You might feel disconnected or detached from the world around you – as though the world is unreal
• You may feel emotionally numb or not experience physical pain
• You might have gaps in your memory – about things which happened, about particular times in your life, about yourself
• You might travel to another place without knowing who you are
• You might speak in different voices or experience different parts of yourself at different times.
• You might find it hard to identify what sort of person you are and feel as though there are different people inside you
What would another person observe?
It can be hard to tell if a person is dissociating as its signs can be subtle. Most people are not aware that they are dissociating because it is an automatic response.
• May appear vague, numb or spaced out – stare off into space
• May look glazed as if they are off somewhere else or disconnected from the present moment
• May have a temporary lapse in attention or avoid eye contact
• Might lose time
• Might find it hard to remember people and places or details of personal experiences
• May suddenly start to act differently
What can you do?
• Understand that dissociation is the way your mind protected you and that it helped you to survive
• Explore grounding strategies that work for you and which you can use if you are triggered or dissociate, and which can help you reconnect into the present
• Therapy with a trauma-informed counsellor who is experienced in working with clients with complex trauma experiences and dissociation. A therapist can support you to start to feel safe, secure and begin to manage your feelings, as a first step. Often this is with what is called a phased approach
• Self-care although often hard to do including exercise and practising self-compassion can be helpful for us all
Download our fact sheets including our Fact Sheet about Dissociation in Plain English here: https://blueknot.org.au/resources/blue-knot-fact-sheets/trauma-related-experiences/emotions-and-arousal/