When a child is exposed to a traumatic incident there is a risk that this child’s nervous system will become so overwhelmed, that to survive their environment a child will respond to this traumatic event by going into a dissociative state. As mentioned in other posts related to the nervous system, this is not a prefrontal cortex (part of the brain that makes decisions) response, but rather, the nervous system responding in milliseconds to distress.
Alan Shore speaks to this in his research with the still baby experiment where a baby dissociates after unsuccessful attempts to gain its caregivers’ attention.
Warning this video can be very upsetting to watch.
According to Alan Shores and Stephen Porges research, when under distress, an infant’s dorsal branch (DVS) of the Poly Vagal activates causing opioids to flood the nervous system and produce a calming numb state. Put another way, one could argue that this is nature’s way of protecting an organism from distress.
If a child is continually exposed to trauma, dissociation becomes a reinforced adaptive response to distress, however, these distressing feelings, negative beliefs, and behaviours connected to the original traumatic event have not disappeared, instead, these states are buried in the hippocampus and the body.
With so much distress buried in the body and mind, is it any wonder then, that when a cue in the present environment reminds our body, or mind of the past traumatic event, that this creates the perfect circumstance for an ego state (also known as part of self) to activate?
Ego states develop as a way to cope with severe traumatic events in childhood. When a child is under distress, repeatedly, the child does not develop a healthy sense of self or ego. Instead, the ego splits off into different states that are connected to the ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response. These states can take on what feels like a personality or ‘state’, which lasts for a few hours, or in its worst form, days.
Often times, when a person is in an ego ‘state’, they are unaware of why they are acting a certain way. In many cases, the move into this state is automatic and unconscious.
For example, a person experiences a body sensation of heat which then reminds them of a traumatic event in which this person was burned as a child. The ego state of ‘rage’, which belongs to the original traumatic incident, becomes activated in the present, causing the ‘rage state’, to rage in the present, even though the rage does not fit for the present circumstance.
According to Structural Dissociative Theory, this means that certain ego states that carry these distressing feelings, behaviors or negative beliefs can become fixed states of being when a person is triggered (past is in the present). In its worst form, this can look like DID or Dissociative Identity Disorder (formally known as multiple personality disorder). When a person’s body or mind is triggered, an ego state can take over. Ego states can feel like states that take over for hours or days until the nervous system has regulated back to the baseline of calmness. Some people speak of feeling like they are in an altered state or “taken over by this ego state.”
Ego states can take on states of fight-flight such as the “Rage part connected to fight, or the clingy part connected to flight (fear). Ego States can even have arguments with each other and with the adult self. This can be very distressing for a person.
The first step in healing is to be able to identify ego states also known as parts that you may have developed as a way to adapt to the distressing events you experienced. The next step is to work with a therapist to begin validating and supporting these ego states so that you can eventually gain full control of your internal family.
Identifying ego states is tricky and should be accomplished with a qualified therapist who understands what dissociation is and how to use EMDR to desensitize any trauma connected to ego states.
A wonderful book that is helpful in understanding dissociation and parts is called Coping with Trauma Related Dissociation Skills Training for Patients and Therapists.