“Some people’s lives seem to flow in a narrative; mine had many stops and starts. That’s what trauma does. It interrupts the plot. It just happens, and then life goes on. No one prepares you for it (Jessica Stern, Denial: A Memoir of Terror)”. It only takes one moment to lose yourself, to feel like an outsider in your own body. That is the reality of experiencing trauma. Life stops; and then it doesn’t. Others forget what happened, but you find yourself reliving the same moment, day after day, despite countless attempts to eliminate every reminder.
To say that trauma changes a person is an understatement. “A traumatic experience results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think” (The Body Keeps the Score). One who experiences a traumatic event will not view the world in the same light as they once had. These experiences cause someone to feel distrust in themselves, and feel afraid in their own body. In addition to this, their brain will adapt to protect them from further danger. One of the brain’s mechanisms to protect the individual from further trauma is detachment from reality.
Peritraumatic dissociation is known as a method of mentally detaching from intense emotional content during a traumatic experience (Facets of Emotional Regulation and Post Traumatic Stress:An Indirect Effect via Peritraumatic Dissociation). This means that one will not feel the entirety of an painful experience. This is also the reason some people experience shock or a feeling of disbelief after a traumatic event. The event itself was too overwhelming for their mind to handle and their brain automatically suppressed these emotions so that the person can continue through their daily life. This behavior continues long after the event has passed and often leaves survivors feeling emotionally numb. For this reason, people who have symptoms of dissociation find it hard to maintain close friendships or relationships:“After you have experienced something so unspeakable, how do you learn to trust yourself or anyone else again?” (The Body Keeps the Score). When trauma disconnects someone from their own self, it is even more of a struggle to connect to their peers.
While those who experience dissociation feel detached, guarded or even emotionless, it should be acknowledged that this is because their brain is working to regulate the high amount of arousal flooding their nervous system. Someone experiencing a dissociative episode feels as if they are watching themselves from an outsider’s perspective. This mechanism typically emerges in a traumatic event and reoccurs when someone experiences stress. The body becomes overwhelmed much easier and attempts to protect itself at the slightest threat. “Individuals with the dissociative subtype display high activation in brain regions associated with arousal and emotion regulation; thus, dissociation represents an attempt to regulate one’s emotional experience in which the regulation effort results in problematic separation from typical situational awareness” (Facets of Emotional Regulation and Post Traumatic Stress:An Indirect Effect via Peritraumatic Dissociation). Instead of experiencing an overwhelming amount of distress, the brain works to moderate their emotions to benefit their overall cognitive state. The mind knows when someone is ready for healing, and when someone is not ready to handle the magnitude of their own emotions.
Those who experience dissociation often feel as if there is a disconnect between themselves and the person they used to be; This causes them to feel isolated and intensely ashamed. However, those who experience such unbearable events should not have to deal with the aftermath of trauma on their own. We should provide support and empathy to help survivors reclaim their voice. In addition to this, therapy is an effective treatment route that helps improve one’s healing process. Those who dissociate when they experience distress should not be looked down on for the way their mind chose to protect them.
“Free Image on Pixabay – Sadness, Depressed, Woman, Girl.” Sea Bottom Photocomposition · Free Image on Pixabay, 29 Oct. 2014, pixabay.com/en/sadness-depressed-woman-girl-alone-3434515/.
Stern, Jessica. Denial: a Memoir of Terror. Ecco, 2011.
Jones, Alyssa C., et al. “Facets of Emotion Regulation and Posttraumatic Stress: An Indirect Effect via Peritraumatic Dissociation.” SpringerLink, Humana Press, 2 Mar. 2018, link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10608-018-9899-4.
Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma . CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.