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How Dissociation Can Show Up After Trauma

As a complex trauma survivor, it took me awhile to understand that complex PTSD and complex trauma were dissociative conditions. One of the main functions of my dissociation was the overall denial that I'd experienced any trauma at all. It wasn't until symptoms like trauma triggers, emotional dysregulation, suicidal ideation, panic attacks, and so on, really dialed up that I realized that something wasn't right. Even then, without an understanding of dissociation, I didn't know what was happening to me. I experienced A LOT of shame and felt incredibly broken.

As I learned about forms of dissociation, I could relate. I was finally finding words that described how I was feeling. Over the course of my healing, I'd come to understand how deep and well-worn my dissociation was. Looking back now, knowing what I know, I see a highly protective shield that helped me survive. Dissociation is a built-in protective feature of our nervous system. Dissociation is NOT inherently pathological. Dissociation exists on a spectrum, with complex trauma and complex PTSD on the more severe end.

There are healthy forms of dissociation, however, when we experience trauma, dissociation gets dialed up in extreme ways. There are different forms of dissociation, different ways our brain and bodies cope with the chronic trauma we are experiencing.

Types of Dissociation:

Here are some of the ways I've experienced dissociation as a survivor of complex trauma/PTSD and how it showed up for me:

Depersonalization: is a persistent feeling of being disconnected from your body and your emotions, like you're living outside of your body.

For me this looked like:

  • Not recognizing myself in the mirror

  • Feeling like my body didn't belong to me

  • Feeling robotic and mechanical

  • What would you add?

Derealization: is a persistent feeling that the world around you isn't real, feeling disconnected from reality.

For me this looked like:

  • Feeling like my life was a movie I was watching

  • Experiencing the world as a dream-like state, foggy, distorted, or lifeless

  • Feeling like there was a glass wall between me and the world

  • What would you add?

Dissociative Amnesia: is a condition where you can't recall important personal information or aspects of your timeline, typically around traumatic events.

For me this looked like:

  • Having "holes" in my timeline memory, sections of my life that were missing

  • Questioning and doubting my own memories or feeling like they weren't mine

  • Being able to recall some difficult memories but without feeling

  • What would you add?

Identity Confusion: is not having a clear sense of who you are. While we all experience periods of identity confusion developmentally, periods where we explore who we are like adolescence, trauma can create a lack of coherence, a sense that overtime we coming to understand and know ourselves better.

For me this looked like:

  • Not knowing my own emotional and relational needs

  • Feeling fragmented as person, like a collection of pieces rather than a solid whole

  • Taking on roles that other people wanted me to play rather exploring the roles I wanted to take on in life

  • What would you add?

Identity Alteration: is a feeling of being separate from certain parts of oneself. The degree of fragmentation and dissociation can vary when "switching" between parts.

For me this looked like:

  • Moments when I felt like something in me took over and responded in ways that felt foreign to me

  • Feeling emotionally hung over when a trauma-related part of me emerged then disappeared again

  • Moments when I felt child-like in adult settings

  • What would you add?

Reconnecting Through Gentle Self-Awareness:

One of the first ways I began healing dissociation was reconnecting to myself through gentle self-awareness. A protective function of dissociation is to keep what feels beyond our capacity to cope outside of our awareness, so slowly and gradually developing our self-awareness is how we reconnect to our bodies, different parts of ourselves, our emotions, etc.

I found that developing awareness around how dissociation showed up in my life was a first step towards healing it. What can be challenging about our growing self-awareness is that we may notice intense shame as we identify the ways we've been dissociating or shame around the ways dissociation has impacted our lives. While it can be very difficult, practicing compassion with our dissociative defenses is key. We need to remember that dissociation isn't inherently pathological, but rather an inherent protective mechanism that has been dialed up in response to trauma. It serves an important function.

If you related to one of the dissociative mechanisms named above, you have already taken one step towards developing an awareness of how dissociation shows up for you. When it comes to healing dissociation, it is essential to take it slow and seek support.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Do you relate to any of the types of dissociation?

  2. What is it like to have a name and an understanding of what you are experiencing?

  3. How has dissociation been a protective mechanism?

Resources That Could Help:

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