Healing After Trauma: Dissociation and Trauma

Trauma has no type; It haunts the soldier dreaming to reunite with his family, only to realize home now feels like a battle zone. Trauma overwhelms the girl who’s terrified to walk alone, constantly looking over her shoulder because she knows what it’s like to be vulnerable. Trauma is loss: the loss of control and the loss of one’s power. It is an unwelcome intruder, consuming one’s innocence. It is theft- the theft of one’s identity and the welcoming of uncertainty. “Trauma opens up a corridor of essential helplessness and the possibility of death”(The Child Survivor). Those who experience traumatic events tend to isolate themselves due to feelings of shame and denial.  However, ensuring the past remains hidden only increases feelings of loneliness and hinders one’s healing process.

Avoidance is a common reaction to those who later develop a dissociative disorder or PTSD. While trauma causes distrust in society, creating a emotional wall only delays recovery. This is because repressed emotions will never become healed emotions. Instead, unresolved emotions gain strength and power. While someone may be ignoring their feelings, their body forces them to pay attention. This is one reason why dissociation and PTSD occurs long after a traumatic event is over. “Protecting the secret, as well as enduring the multiple effects of these experiences, causes children’s internal resources to become overtaxed, leaving fewer resources for the difficult work of healing” (The Child Survivor). People who have experienced trauma spend so much emotional energy repressing painful memories. In result, they are left exhausted when engaging in healing processes, which are draining and difficult to begin with. It is counterproductive to hide their bodies natural reaction to an abnormal situation.

Children especially are vulnerable to developing a dissociation disorder because they have not yet developed other coping mechanisms. In addition to this, their brain which is still developing has to cope with an extreme amount of stress. For example, trauma causes the brain to create an excess amount of cortisol, which can damage specific parts of the brain. When experiencing high levels of stress, a child’s body is flooded with stress hormones, including cortisol. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can damage the hippocampus, resulting in life-long deficits in memory and other cognitive functions Furthermore, exposure to stress negatively affects the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive functions like attention, self-regulation, and working memory” (Simmons & Douglaus, 2017).  Children exposed to dangerous events should not be expected to be able to heal on their own for this reason. Just because physical symptoms seem to alleviate after a short amount of time does not mean their troubles have been resolved.

Children who experience abuse have no means of defense due to their age, size and ability to be influenced. This is especially true for children who experience sexual violence. While they may experience pain or be uncomfortable, it is much easier to convince a child rather than an adult to remain quiet or to convince them the abuse is their fault. Instead of defending themselves, they turn inward and protect themselves through dissociation. “Dissociation presents in traumatized children with dazed states, confusion in identity, voices or imaginary friends that influence behavior, and a variety of dysregulations in behavior, mood, cognitions, somatic experiences, and relationships” (The Child Survivor).  Instead of speaking out against someone else, they feel confused and ashamed of acts committed against them. In addition to this, most survivors fear their feelings will be invalidated if they reach out. However, silence only causes these children to hold on to the experiences longer and with more negative emotions. “Traumatic experiences endured in isolation and secrecy, which is often the case for the traumatic experiences of children and teens, are some of the hardest experiences to overcome” (The Child Survivor).

Shawn Hornbeck, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse describes his experience with dissociation in a time period when he was held captive.“It’s like you’re on autopilot and someone else is controlling the switches” (The Child Survivor).  Hornbeck describes the rewiring of the brain in this passage when he discusses feeling on “autopilot”. After a traumatic event, the brain indicates that the world is no longer safe. Additionally, it attempts to mask one’s pain and to protect them from future harm. This is the reason survivors feel on edge or are often triggered in situations that remind them of their traumatic experience. The brain, which is coping with a tremendous amount of shock, reminds the body when it feels the slightest threat. This passage specifically relates to the loss of control someone feels after being abused or violated.  Unlike the majority of children, Hornbeck describes his ability to recover being largely due to having supports who were free of judgement and understanding. “Feelings of being overwhelmed beyond the limits of one’s capacity can be mitigated when the experience is shared with others.”(The Child Survivor). Hornbeck displays extraordinary resilience and describes the strength used to overcome adversity.  By sharing his experience, Hornbeck was able to regain control over his life and his voice. Hornbeck should be admired as a paradigm of resilience and strength.


Silberg, Joyanna L. The Child Survivor: Healing Developmental Trauma and Dissociation. Routledge, 2013.

“Free Image on Pixabay – Time Heals All Wounds, Consolation.” Time Heals All Wounds Consolation · Free Photo on Pixabay, Pixabay, 11 Dec. 2015, pixabay.com/en/time-heals-all-wounds-consolation-1087107/.

Simmons, Krystal T., et al. “After the Storm: Helping Children Cope with Trauma after Natural Disasters.” Communique, National Association of School Psychologists. 4340 East West Highway Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814. Tel: 301-657-0270; Fax: 301-657-0275; e-Mail: Publications@Naspweb.org; Web Site: Http://Www.nasponline.org/Publications/, 30 Jan. 2018, eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1167197.

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