Dissociation is a phenomenon that happens to a person when their nervous system is activated by a trigger in the present environment, that reminds a person of a traumatic incident from their past. Dissociation is part of the continuum of the freeze or immobilized state that a person may experience as part of an adaptive survival response to a traumatic event.
Let’s talk about an example of freeze, or immobilized state first before we return to Dissociation. For example, when a mouse is taunted by a cat it will freeze. The cat gets bored and goes away until it notes the mouse begins to move again. Taunted by the cat again, the mouse freezes until either the cat kills the mouse, or the mouse literally freezes to death. This is an example of a response to a threat known as freeze or immobilization.
For humans in this frozen state, sometimes a person leaves their body and watches the trauma from above their body or leaves completely with no memory of the event. This is nature’s way of protecting us. In some cases, people have reported a dissociative experience being similar to near death.
If then, during a traumatic incident, one dissociates, when they return to their body, or back to the present, their memory of the incident will not be integrated. It will likely be fragmented.
Fragmented means a person might remember pieces of the memory. In some cases, there is no memory, simply a body sensation that is connected to the traumatic event. Let’s use the metaphor of broken glass on the floor. These traumatic memories are fragmented like broken glass (pieces of a memory, or a body sensation).
It’s easy, then, to begin to understand how a trigger in the present, such as a smell, internal body sensation, facial expression, or tone of voice can be a trigger for a person to dissociate in the present. The trigger in the present environment sends the nervous system back to the past traumatic event.
This can be quite frightening for a person especially when a person does not understand why they dissociate. Where a person fits on the continuum of dissociation will depend on how severe the episodes are. In the more severe cases, some people speak to losing hours in a day and ending up in places without knowing how they got there.
Dissociation can fall into three compartments; Primary, Secondary and Tertiary.
Primary Dissociation: When a traumatic event occurs, the person is unable to integrate the entire experience into consciousness. The traumatic event is fragmented into isolated pieces without the integration of a personal narrative. There is a lack of cognitive understanding of the experience.
Secondary Dissociation: A person in a dissociated state experiences the self-acting in the event as if watching from above or from a distance. Such an experience permits a person to distance themselves and view the event as a spectator. There is a lack of feeling and emotion related to the trauma. People who have survived complex PTSD depersonalization, Dissociation not otherwise specified, often fit into this category.
Tertiary Dissociation: A person develops distinct ego states that contain the traumatic experience. These appear as personalities with distinct cognitive, affective, and behavioural patterns. Persons with Dissociative Identity Disorder are often in this category.
A trained EMDR therapist who has advanced training in dissociation can help a person integrate. Look for a therapist who has this specialized training before attempting to get help with this.