Trauma and Dissociation

Trauma and Dissociation

  • “The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.” ~ Judith Lewis Herman
  • “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.” ~ Judith Lewis Herman
  • “She was a stranger in her own life, a tourist in her own body.” ― Melissa de la Cruz

Trauma and dissociation are part of who we are; they are embedded in our lives. Trauma alters the mind, brain, and body for the worse. Trauma, stress hormones, and dissociation influence and organize our bodies and minds from early in people’s lives. The severity, chronicity, and timing of when traumas occur.

Dissociation is a defense mechanism that the mind uses to cope with overwhelming or traumatic experiences. Disconnection from one’s thoughts, feelings, memories, or identity. Dissociation can range from mild to severe and manifest in different ways. Some dissociations include feeling numb and spacing out. There is a feeling of disconnection from one’s body or surroundings. Some people experience amnesia.

Many people may experience dissociation during their life. Dissociating may make a person feel disconnected from the world around them. For example, feeling detached from your body or as though the world around you is unreal.

It is interesting to note that dissociation is part of the way we speak to one another. For example, “pull yourself together!” or “Stop daydreaming,” “get with it,” or “Wake up.”

In a flashback:

A flashback is a sudden, involuntary re-experiencing a past traumatic event as if it’s happening in the present.

Some survivors of trauma may suddenly experience traumatic sensations or feelings from the past. Those sensations can happen when they experience a trigger. The flashback might make a person feel they are reliving a traumatic event in the present. The experience may cause them to switch to another part of their identity. There is an experience of different identity states with distinct memories. These may resurface during flashbacks.

Some people state that dissociation feels like looking at themselves from the outside.

They might:

  • Feel as though you are watching yourself in a film or looking at yourself from the outside
  • Feel as if you are observing your emotions
  • Feel disconnected from parts of your body or your emotions
  • Feel as if you are floating away
  • Feel unsure of the boundaries between yourself and other people.

It is common for people to report out-of-body experiences.

Trauma-causing dissociation include

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Severe neglect
  • Emotional abuse
  1. Childhood abuse, such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
  2. Neglect includes physical or emotional neglect, which can cause a child to feel disconnected from their emotions and needs.
  3. Witnessing and experiencing violence at home. Violence at home includes parental fighting, incest, and rape.
  4. Being in a severe auto accident or natural disaster can also lead to dissociative symptoms to cope with the overwhelming experience.
  5. If drastic, medical procedures or traumatic illnesses can also lead to dissociative symptoms.

Severe trauma can cause a fugue state.

While it is rare, trauma can cause a fugue state for some people.

A fugue state, or dissociative fugue, is a rare psychological disorder characterized by a temporary loss of identity, memory, and sense of self. During a fugue state, an individual suddenly and unexpectedly travels to a new location and assumes a new identity. Individuals in this fugue state do not remember their past life or identity. Fugue states can last from a few hours to several weeks, months, and years.

Fugue states are relatively rare and often require professional intervention to address and treat. It can have a significant impact on an individual’s physical health, as well as their mental and emotional well-being. Some physical symptoms may be associated with trauma. It can cause physical pain, such as injuries from a traumatic event.

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a mental health condition. Someone with DID has multiple distinct personalities. The various identities control a person’s behavior at different times. The condition can cause memory loss, delusions, or depression. DID is usually caused by past trauma.

Trauma can cause tension headaches and migraines. It can also cause digestive problems like diarrhea, constipation, and stomach pain. Additional physical symptoms are fatigue, sleep disturbances, nightmares, and repetitive dreams.

Nightmares and some dreams, and amnesia, can be caused by trauma.  

People who have gone through trauma may have nightmares or flashbacks. These dreams can be vivid and intense and can cause the individual to feel fear, anxiety, or other powerful emotions. These dreams can be so disruptive they can cause difficulty sleeping. Combat veterans have reported nightmares of horrific battles. That is where the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) originates.

Dissociative amnesia causes gaps in memory. This type of amnesia is often related to trauma or stress. It is believed to be a way for the mind to protect itself from overwhelming experiences. 

Dissociative amnesia can cause people to forget their names, address, or family members. They may also forget details about traumatic events or periods during the trauma. They can make it difficult for individuals to function daily, as they may struggle to remember important information or events.

The entire topic of trauma has a long history. Several European physicians had patients in the 19th century showing signs of the symptoms discussed. After WW II, it was discovered that soldiers returning home had PTSD. At first, the thinking was that PTSD was strictly a military result of combat. The medical community uncovered the fact that any trauma can trigger PTSD. Much more is understood about trauma and its effects on the human brain, neurological system, and health.

Medical Consultation

Suppose you or someone in your family is experiencing these symptoms. Even if you suspect so, seeing your medical doctor is important. One of the tragic outcomes of suffering severe trauma is suicide. Remember that there is normal dissociation. It only becomes a problem if a person chronically dissociates.


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