What is dissociation?

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.

If you would like to find out more you can contact me on 0409396608 or email me on nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au.

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Should I view the body of my loved one?


This is a question I get asked a lot.

There are differing opinions about this.

Some say you should never view the person because you should remember them as they were.

Others say it is important to view the person to be able to realise they are actually dead.

So what should you do?

When I was a nurse I saw many people die and had the privilege of washing their bodies after death. Some people I never saw alive, they died before I was able to meet them. But I still washed their bodies with the reverence of someone I had nursed for some time.

I saw people die in terrible pain. In beds messy from their discomfort. I felt the atmosphere of the room as they died. Sometimes their families were able to be with them. Sometimes the end came so suddenly the family was not there.

One blessing I was able to give the families, was to see their loved one lying peacefully in clean sheets with a peaceful atmosphere in the room. That is how I wanted to see my loved ones who died.

When my grandmother died, no one looked at her body. That was my first encounter with death and I wished I had been able to see her looking peaceful. Instead I had a memory of her lying in her clothes on the floor with her teeth out as I tried to resuscitate her.

When my grandfather died I asked to see his body. I had not been there for his death and I wanted to see him. I was glad I did, although the funeral home had coloured his grey hair black and it did not look like him. It meant a lot to me and still does.

When my mother died I was able to see her in the palliative care unit before her body was taken away. I saw her again in the funeral home because other relatives wanted to see her. It was helpful to see her. And this time the funeral directors left her hair white!

When my father died I was not even told. So I never got to see him or say goodbye.

Different experiences and different outcomes.

My father was forced to see a dead relative when he was a child and he was traumatised by it. For that reason, he was not supportive of anyone in the family seeing a dead relative. He was opposed to seeing any loved one after death.

I saw many families come to visit their loved one in hospital and saw the comfort it gave.

I have seen beautiful things done at funerals when the children affected are encouraged to write or draw something for their loved one and put it in their coffin.

I have heard from people who do not ever want to see their loved one dead. I have also heard from people who found great comfort in seeing their loved one dead.

I have seen people who wanted to view their loved one and were talked out of it. I have heard their regret at not being able to see them and now it is too late.

Ultimately, it is your choice. The difficulty lies with those who seek to convince you that you should or shouldn’t see your loved one. It is important to remember that the arguments presented to you are about the person who speaks the argument and their feelings. They are not about your feelings.

If you are facing that difficult choice. It is best to seek time alone to connect with yourself. To think about what you really want and to listen to your instinct. If you feel it is important to view your loved one. Then do it. If you find it hard to do alone, then find someone who is supportive and bring them along too.

If you have children you would like to be involved in a viewing, it is wise to ensure they talk about their loved one before you go in. Be open. Talk about what the loved one meant to you and encourage them to talk about that to. It can be wonderful for them to draw or write something, or find some little memento to put in the coffin. They may want to put flowers, a picture, a drawing or some other item in the coffin. Model by your behaviour the respect you wish them to have for your loved one and ways to grieve. Give the children a chance to talk about the loved one during the viewing and afterwards. If a child decided they do not want to come in or approach the coffin, let them. Just give them space and time. They may decide after a little while to come closer, or they may be content just knowing they can. It is always important they are given an opportunity to talk about their loved one later. The first death a child encounters will teach them much about how to grieve. So be open with them. Encourage them to talk about the person. Reassure them that you are hurting, but that doesn’t mean they can’t talk to you. Let them see you cry. Let them see you happy. Reassure them that they may want to cry or may want to be happy too. Remember that children keep a lot of what they think hidden so it is important to allow them space to talk if they need to. For both you and the children, don’t be afraid to engage with a counsellor if any of you need that.

As for the viewing, remember, funeral homes have a room set aside for a viewing. These rooms are quiet and peaceful and the funeral staff are very respectful and very aware of your needs. There is usually somewhere quiet you can sit afterwards as well.

Whatever choice you make, be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to take time out to grieve when you need it.