The cranking of metallic safety bars generates an echo of laughter as the wheels of the vibrant cart begin to roar. Riding on the high of suspense, you feel your friends squeeze your palms, gushing with anticipation. For a split second, nothing else matters. The ride comes to a slight pause and then instantaneously accelerates down the first ramp. In that shear moment, you regret boarding the ride that has been transformed from bliss to pure chaos. You no longer feel the warmth of your friends tight grips on your sweaty palms or acknowledge the bars that are physically keeping you safe. For the first time, the situation feels far out of your reach; you’re facing this alone. The highs and lows of the ride end, but the fear is never forgotten.
“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable” (Herman, 1992). The banishing act that Herman alludes to is understood in clinical contexts as dissociation. “(Strait, Jacqueline Russo, 2013). Dissociation is said to be the most common response to trauma. When someone is unable to bear with their emotions, the brain compartmentalizes ones painful experience so one can function normally throughout the day without facing harmful emotions. While this allows one to get by on a daily basis, dissociation is not an effective way of coping with the past. Instead, one’s mind learns to fragment and compartmentalize painful experiences so they do not fully process extremely painful memories. This compartmentalizing of painful experiences is also why those who experience dissociation often have a hard time feeling present or may feel spaced out.
While dissociative disorders may cause one to fragment pieces of their life, it is impossible to erase the experience completely. “The process of dissociation has now become enslaved to a dissociative structure that takes as its highest priority the preservation of self-continuity through turning the act of living into an ongoing reminder that trauma is always waiting around the next corner and that it will be more than the mind can handle” (Herman, 1992) For this reason, someone who dissociates will experiences hypervigilance, as their body is always in a state of fight or flight.
Dissociation is defined as a split in consciousness when one undergoes extreme stress. This allows someone to function without consciously thinking about a traumatic experience, but also results in one feeling disconnected from their feelings.“The survivor’s personality is divided into two or more dissociative subsystems – parts that function autonomously and are closed off from one another. They label the first of these dissociative subsystems the Emotional part of the Personality (EP). This part of the personality lives in what van der Hart, Nijenhuis and Solomon call “trauma time” (van der Hart, Nijenhuis and Solomon, 2010). Trauma time is when an individual experiences the trauma always in the present, including an acute experience of the intense effects, needs, motivations and physical sensations associated with the original trauma (van der Hart, et, al., 2010). The other part of the personality is called the “Apparently Normal Part of the Personality”. In other words, painful emotions are masked from one’s consciousness so the emotions do not interfere with their day to day life. This is also why so many people who experience traumatic events act as if they are fine afterwards or experience denial.
One’s response to trauma varies based on their experience, personal background and personality. However, it is important to remember that one’s response to a traumatic experience is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. It is important to provide support and empathy to those who have experienced a traumatic event in order to encourage their healing process.
Strait, Jacqueline Russo. “DO YOU KNOW WHAT I KNOW? EXAMINING THE THERAPIST’S INTERNAL EXPERIENCE WHEN A PATIENT DISSOCIATES IN SESSION.” University of Pennsylvania ScholarlyCommons, Penn Libraries, 13 May 2013, repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1041&context=edissertations_sp2.
Hart, Onno van der, et al. The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization. Norton, 2006.
Herman, J. L. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York, NY, US: Basic Books.