An often overlooked area of trauma impacts by mental health providers are dissociative symptoms and dissociative disorders. Dissociation is the mind’s last alternative to escape from a situation where there is no escape. A person may unconsciously adapt to a traumatic experience by believing they are somebody else or that an event is happening to somebody else.
Dissociation is the disconnection between things usually associated with each other. Dissociative phenomena occur naturally on some level and can be adaptive or maladaptive in nature. Because dissociative experiences are not integrated into the usual sense of self, they can lead to discontinuities in conscious awareness.
The cause of dissociation stems from a combination of environmental and biological factors. Different forms of trauma (repetitive childhood physical and/or sexual abuse is very common) are associated with the development of dissociative disorders. Although less common, a dissociative disorder can develop without repetitive childhood physical or sexual abuse. Significant psychological or emotional abuse and severe neglect may create a dissociative response. Chronic distress due to fear, confusion, and disruption to attachment from primary caregivers can also play a role in dissociation during childhood.
If dissociation continues to be used into adulthood, however, when the original danger no longer exists, it can be maladaptive and significantly impact activities of daily living. The dissociative adult may automatically disconnect from situations that are perceived as dangerous or threatening, without taking time to determine whether there is any real danger.
There are five main dissociative experiences in which the dissociation of psychological processes changes the way a person experiences life:
Although not one of the five main dissociative features identified above, the inability to tolerate and regulate strong emotion is a primary difficulty for an individual with a dissociative disorder. Individuals with a dissociative disorder often struggle with concentration, memory, and perceptions.
To complicate matters further, dissociative disorders can create a certain level of vulnerability towards other maladaptive coping such as addiction to drugs and alcohol.
For more information on the characteristics of each dissociative feature, see the FAQ page.