Mark Lewis

The Nature Of Dissociation

Minding the Gap – the Wisdom and Woes of Dissociation

“I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens!”

Woody Allen.

It was a simple thing, just a moment: the sudden impact from behind, the car shunted forward and the abrupt jolt. An instinctive check showed we weren’t hurt, there was no pain, no injury. I checked the car over with the panicky looking young woman who had just driven in to the back of my car as I had stopped at the junction. A small dent was evident in the bumper, her number plate was cracked. There was no other obvious harm.

But it was after that, when I realised I felt odd, somehow out of touch with my senses and not quite residing in my body. I was almost slightly elated with a floaty, otherworldly state of mind. I remarked on it to my partner, it didn’t feel unpleasant, I felt strangely calm in fact. It was odd though, like one part of me had split from another part, my mind departing slightly from my body. An hour later I realised this state had dissolved away leaving no trace and I felt back to my ‘normal’ self.

When things are going along well enough in daily life, we have a ‘joined up’ experience without obvious ‘gaps’: we are aware of our environment through our senses, grounded in our bodily experience and in touch with our feelings and thoughts. We are ‘associated’, with the different parts of ourselves being in a supportive relationship to each other: As I walk through the park in Spring, I perceive the fresh green leaves, I enjoy the soft ground yielding gently under my feet and I savour the cool fresh air entering my lungs. As my friend comes towards me I smile and experience a sense of happiness and connection as we come closer and I remember our plan for the day.

In this way, all the different elements of my experience are ‘associated’. Of course it may not be so pleasant, perhaps my friend is late, or abrupt when he arrives. But still I am in touch with my current experience, aware of my irritation or hurt and able to speak or act in a way that is congruous with those feelings.

But dissociation gets in the way of this continuity and connection. Different aspects of ourselves can become ‘dis-associated’ from each other in many ways: we might perceive a pleasant environment but have no discernible bodily response; we know we have experienced an important loss but feel blank and empty; we have a sudden wave of anxiety or grief but are unable to think of the cause; we perceive a threatening person approaching and yet lack a suitably protective action in response.

There are times when dissociation is very useful: think of driving while listening to

the radio and realising you have arrived safely at your destination while having no memory of the journey. Or consider a sudden bereavement where the only way to do the practical organising for a funeral is to cut off from your own feelings of distress. However it is here that we start to see how dissociation is connected to trauma whether it be sudden or prolonged. It was David Livingstone who in 1844 described his own dissociative reaction to the sudden trauma of being attacked by a lion:

“I heard a shout. Startled, in looking half round, I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me. I was upon a little height; He caught my shoulder as he sprang, and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife. This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear, and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast. This peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by the carnivore; and if so, is a merciful provision by our benevolent creator for lessening the pain of death.”

Whether or not you agree with Livingstone’s conclusion, it is clear that his reaction both took away the terror that would have been natural in such an attack and even increased his survival chances, given that predators are less ferocious with a limp and relatively lifeless body. His reaction was natural, instinctive and linked to the innate functioning of his nervous system. He could not fight nor flee his attacker, thus he went in to a profound ‘freeze’ state driven by the ancient evolutionary wisdom of his body. This deep ‘freeze’ state is driven by the bodily nervous system, creating a draining away of energy from the muscles of action and a slowing of bodily systems such as heart rate and breathing. We can say that the ‘freeze’ is the physiological response while dissociation is the psychological response which usually accompanies it.

Thus the ‘freeze’ state and the accompanying dissociation, while not consciously chosen, are natural even protective responses when we are faced with traumatic experiences that have overwhelmed our ability to cope or function. We may not have to face being attacked by a lion but there are many other overwhelming experiences in life where some level of dissociation can enable us to keep going when otherwise it would be impossible and unbearable.

Sometimes we have had to disconnect from our feelings or even our memories. Memories of trauma may often be experienced as vague, hazy or even non-existent. Abusive experiences in our early years in particular, often have this quality especially when they have happened within family environments. These
situations can present an impossible to comprehend dilemma whereby the apparently trusted person who should be protective is actually the one causing harm. It can be too difficult and overwhelming for our minds to know that the person who is supposed to love and protect us is also harming us in some way. Sometimes the only way to cope with this is to not know about it. The unconscious survival mechanism of dissociation takes over and we split off from the part of our consciousness that holds the terrifying knowledge.

In the longer term, the problematic thing is that the more intense or prolonged overwhelming experiences are, the more dissociation becomes our habitual response. Creatures of habit that we are, even once the threat has passed, our bodies and minds continue to go down the same well established paths. Even years later, without realising it, we may be using dissociation to keep intense emotional experiences at bay as well as avoiding situations which might provoke them. This limits our emotional experience, inhibiting our relationships and alienating us from our own lives. As Philip Bromberg (the Shadow of the Tsunami, 2011) says, the dissociation can become,

‘…a self-cure that is worse than the illness’.

In other words, the dissociation, which originally served a useful protective purpose, can become a chronic problem that persists long after the actual trauma is over.

There are various ‘technical’ terms for types of dissociation in the diagnostic manuals. They can be seen as a spectrum of severity and include such terms as depersonalisation, derealisation, somatoform dissociation and dissociative disorder through to the most complex presentation of dissociative identity disorder. These diagnostic descriptions are attempts to map out dissociative reactions that have become problematic and it is generally recognised that for the majority of people they are post-traumatic.

Healing is possible however: simple mindfulness and grounding exercises that bring us ‘back to our senses’ can go a long way to countering dissociative symptoms. Carefully processing traumatic reactions with a somatically informed therapist who can really pay attention and ‘look out’ for what is included and excluded in our stories of what has happened to us, can be extremely helpful.

For the more complex, longer term dissociative problems, it is likely that gradual work within a consistent therapeutic relationship will be needed. After all, when trauma and the resulting dissociation has happened in the context of relationships, it is highly likely that another relationship context will be needed for its healing. Ultimately we need a suitably sensitive and experienced therapist who can ‘mind’ the gaps in our awareness, memories and emotional experiences with us so that in turn our minds are helped to restore and reintegrate the missing pieces of our experience.

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