Dissociation is the normal response of our central nervous system when we are faced with intense physical harm, fear or terror we are unable to avoid, escape or shield ourselves from. In a state of dissociation, we undergo a partial or complete disruption of the normal integration of our conscious and psychological functioning. We can no longer feel physical pain, shed tears, access or express emotions, communicate or interact with others. We become disconnected from our physical bodies and emotions.
Dissociation is a natural response we share with all living beings. In the wild, when an animal is pursued by a predator, through the length of the chase, the prey is very much engaged in the form. Fully present in its body, it is actively immersed in the flight mechanism aimed at saving its life. Yet, the instant the predator's jaws closes on its throat, the prey's body instantly becomes limp and loose. Dissociation allows the nervous system to shield itself from a level of physical, psychological and/or emotional harm, the intensity of which would be impossible to absorb.
The dissociative state in wildlife and human beings is characteristically recognizable by the dazed, faraway, glassy, disconnected stare we get when our lives, physical safety, emotional well being, or all of the above, have been suddenly, violently altered.
Peritraumatic dissociation is the clinical term used to refer to dissociation at the time of the trauma. Clinical studies of peritraumatic dissociation have shown it to present a greater risk for chronic posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and posttraumatic symptoms. Importantly, peritraumatic dissociation predicts risk of PTSD independent of the level of trauma exposure and general dissociative tendencies.
Experiencing with peritraumatic dissociation early in life, especially when the state is endured repeatedly, permanently stretches the flexibility of the boundaries between the conscious and subconscious levels of the mind. Journeying back and forth between the conscious state and the subconscious, dissociative state, at an early age, establishes a lifelong pattern or instinctive habit to retreat to the dissociative state whenever an uncomfortable experience is encountered. Adult victims of childhood peritraumatic dissociation can find themselves subconsciously retreating to a dissociative state anytime their level of comfort is altered.
Symptoms of dissociation resulting from trauma may include depersonalization, psychological numbing, disengagement, or amnesia regarding the events of the abuse. While peritraumatic dissociation provides a temporarily effective defense mechanism in cases of severe trauma, in the long term however, dissociation is associated with decreased psychological functioning and adjustment. Other symptoms sometimes found along with dissociation in victims of traumatic abuse (often referred to as "sequelae to abuse") include anxiety, PTSD, low self-esteem, somatization, depression, chronic pain, interpersonal dysfunction, substance abuse, self-mutilation and suicidal ideation or actions.
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© GMB ~ Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, Genvièv Martin-Bernard is a Forensic and Clinical Hypnotherapist who consults locally, nationally and internationally. A published author, she serves as President of the Oregon Hypnotherapy Association and is a professional member of the National Guild of Hypnotists.
References: The American Journal of Psychiatry, 156:1808-1810, November 1999 - Wikipedia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - Animals as Teachers and Healers, Susan McElroy.