As interest in the field of trauma has increased over the past thirty years, so too has the study of dissociation, as the two go hand in hand. There is now a growing body of research and literature on the topic of dissociation, enhancing the ability of clinicians to understand, recognize and treat it.
Dissociation is defined as the disruption of the normal integration of experience. That is, elements of experience (behaviour, emotion, sensation, knowledge and meaning) that would normally be held together in awareness, are fragmented, or split apart in order to prevent the person from being overwhelmed. Thus, intense affects such as terror may be held out of awareness, thereby allowing the individual to continue on with their daily life.
What causes Dissociation?
Dissociation is a psychological defense that has been called “the escape when there is no escape” and is thought by some to be the human equivalent of the freeze response in animals. When used as protection from trauma, it saves the mind. However, over time, it can take on a life of its own and even when the trauma has long passed, it continues to operate as if the danger is still present, continuing to compartmentalize experience, alter sensorium and interrupt the ability to be fully present in one’s life.
There are many forms of dissociation, ranging from the familiar, normal day-to-day experiences of being “lost in a good book” or not being able to remember the drive home, to the clinical types of dissociation that we see when it has been used as a defense against traumatic stress. In cases of moderate stress, dissociation is usually transient and reversible, with the events being gradually made sense of and integrated into experience. However, in cases of extreme or prolonged stress or threat, dissociation has more long-lasting and deleterious effects. This is especially true in the case of early and chronic exposure to childhood abuse and neglect or in situations where the child experiences prolonged fear states.