Dissociation is when your mind disconnects from the present moment. It is actually a break in how your mind handles information. Everyone dissociates at differing levels. Everyone can report times when they daydreamed or their mind wandered. These are the “penny for your thoughts” moments when other people notice you aren’t focused on what is happening around you. You may be aware of feeling disconnected from your thoughts, feelings memories and surroundings.
Some people report it is like watching themselves from a distance. Sometimes this may feel like an out of body experience. While you are dissociating, your perception of time can be affected. You may forget things or have gaps in your memory. You may feel a sense of the world not being real. You may even feel you aren’t real. Dissociation has a big impact on your sense of identity. You may feel like you are a different person. You may be aware of your heart pounding, or of feeling light headed. You may feel emotionally numb or separated from what is happening around you. You may have no sensations from your body at all. You may have no memory of how you got to where you are.
Other things you may feel include experiencing tunnel vision, hearing voices, having intense flashbacks that feel like they are happening now, being unable to move. Or you may feel totally involved in a fantasy world that feels like it is real.
Dissociation is not a bad thing. Everyone dissociates at some time or other. Where dissociation becomes a problem is when it interferes with your everyday life.
If you have been through a traumatic event, you are likely to have dissociated. This could be anything from a child being verbally abused by an adult, where the child was unable to escape the abuse and was frightened, shamed and anxious. The child will usually dissociate to cope with the terrifying situation. Children who have been abused will often find it hard to remember events.
If you have been in an accident, such as a car accident. You may remember that time seemed to slow. You may also have trouble remembering what you did after the accident or immediately before. These are all due to dissociation.
Some people have had so much trauma in their childhood or as adults that they develop a dissociative disorder. They often do not know they have it. Some signs you may notice in someone who has a dissociative disorder include: rapid mood swings, trouble remembering personal details, forgetting appointments that have been made or things that have been said or done, changes in behaviour and capabilities from day to day, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, feeling suicidal, self harming, substance abuse, you may appear to space out a lot as well, the world may not feel real, you may feel disconnected from your surroundings or feel you are watching yourself from outside. As well as the symptoms already mentioned, children may have imaginary friends and have learning disabilities.
Why is trauma in childhood so damaging?
When a child is abused or bullied, they are in a powerless situation. Abuse and bullying, which is a form of abuse, are about power. The perpetrator exerting power over the victim. When you are in a powerless situation it is extremely frightening. For an adult, with all the brain development and skills of an adult, it is frightening. But an adult has skills to deal with that. For a child, whose brain is still developing and who has yet to learn all the adult skills, it is even worse. In a powerless situation there is a sense of helplessness, along with fear and pain. The pain may not be physical pain but emotional pain triggers the same pain centres in the brain as physical pain, so the impacts are the same. Shame is also a large part of the response in the victim of abuse. Dissociation is a coping mechanism. We have many ways of coping with things. One of those ways is to avoid the situation. If you are trapped in an abusive situation and cannot escape, the only way to avoid the situation is to dissociate. Disconnecting from the situation is a way of cooping with the terrifying feelings of helplessness, fear, pain and shame.
Some people dissociate more than others. This may be a learned response to previous traumas.
As I mentioned previously, we all dissociate to some extent. It is only when the dissociating interferes with our lives that we need to do something about it.
Many people who have suffered past trauma and dissociated manage life fairly well. They just know that they don’t handle things as well as they should. They may need a lot of alcohol or drugs to cope with life. They may find themselves behaving in ways they don’t like, but feel powerless to stop. They may find they go along with things others want them to do, even though they don’t want to. They may find certain behaviours in others, places, smells, colours trigger feelings and reactions in them but they don’t know why. They may be aware of something wrong with their childhood but not have any memories of anything wrong. They may have a sense of not knowing who they are. They may wonder why they keep finding themself in the same terrible situation with an abusive person and now know why.
So what do I do about it?
If you know or suspect trauma in your past, it is really important to find a qualified counsellor. A counsellor who is not qualified may cause terrible harm. The qualified person will have a counselling, social work or psychology degree. They will also have extra training in trauma and dissociation. One of the best training organisations for this in Australia is the Blue Knot Foundation. They have guidelines for trauma therapists on working with trauma and dissociation. They also run training for professionals. For you the Blue Knot Foundation also runs workshops for trauma survivors.
I am a qualified counsellor with a Bachelor and Master Degree in Counselling. I have also trained with the Blue Knot Foundation for the past eight years and continue to attend workshops annually. I follow the Trauma Guidelines and Dissociation Guidelines in my work.
Trauma work is not short. It will take time. Trauma tends to come in layers. You may work with a counsellor for some time, dealing with the outermost layer. You may then go away for a while and consolidate the healing you have achieved. You may then find more areas (the next layer) to work on. You may go back to counselling, either with the same counsellor or someone else. Healing is a lifelong thing.
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