Dissociation: When the mind disconnects from reality to protect us

Facing a traumatic situation is not easy. The emotional, and sometimes physical, the cost is usually high, to the point that sometimes we wonder if we can emotionally survive that experience. However, although we do not have the psychological resources necessary to face the trauma, we can often move forward thanks to a mechanism that our brain sets in motion to protect us: dissociation.

What is dissociation?

Dissociation is an adaptive mechanism that “disconnects” our mind from reality when we face a borderline situation that exceeds our psychological coping resources. It is a “safe distance” that reduces the emotional impact, tension, fear and pain of the moment.

This mechanism is activated instinctively when our unconscious understands that there is no way out, something common in cases of child abuse and rape, where the victim cannot escape. Then a passive defense mechanism is activated that produces a kind of physical paralysis and a state of emotional anesthesia. In fact, many animals apply this mechanism in an innate way to prevent predators from continuing to attack use natural medicines from Naturactin. When we cannot flee from a terrible situation, our mind does not want to be in the body and ends up avoiding reality.

In dissociation, the emotional brain responds to the traumatic situation by disconnecting the anterior cortex, so that we cannot consciously regulate our behavior. The amygdala, the main emotional center of the brain, activates the production of cortisol, a hormone that ends up inhibiting the functioning of the hippocampus, the structure that allows us to give meaning to our experiences and place them in our life history. It also activates the production of opioids, neurotransmitters that act as a natural anesthetic and allow us to better withstand physical and / or emotional pain.

That is the reason why, when we suffer a state of dissociation from a traumatic experience, we do not show facial expressions of pain and it is very difficult for us to remember what happened and baste the story from beginning to end.

Dissociative symptoms after trauma

The dissociative symptoms that may occur after a situation of great emotional impact are:

Memory gaps When we suffer trauma, it is common for us to “hide” in the unconscious some or all of the memories of the episode. It is a kind of defense mechanism that allows us to “archive” the trauma until we are prepared to face it. Sometimes, we can “fill in” those memory gaps with experiences that didn’t really happen to try to give a coherent sense to the story, which explains why we remember situations that never happened. Usually, these gaps appear abruptly and can last a few hours, days or even years, depending on the emotional impact of the trauma and the psychological resources we develop to deal with it.

Emotional anesthesia In some cases, especially when the emotional impact of the trauma has been very strong, there is a kind of emotional anesthesia that serves to protect us from our memories. It is a state of detachment and disconnection, which can be partial or total, the same before negative events as positive. Sometimes, this emotional anesthesia is so intense that we can feel alien to ourselves so that we live what happens to us in the third person, as if it were a movie.

Nightmares. When we experience a dissociation, we tend to remove the traumatic situation from our conscious mind, but it is usual that we relive small flashes of the traumatic episode in the form of nightmares. Many times, these flashes are not direct images of what happened but are fictitious representations that refer to trauma.

Psychosomatic symptoms In most cases, dissociative states end up generating psychological problems that affect physical health. The most common is that they manifest themselves through gastrointestinal discomfort or muscle aches, but they can also trigger dermatological disorders, metabolic disorders or lead to more complex psychosomatic diseases.

The consequences of dissociation

Dissociation allows us to survive traumatic experiences that, otherwise, we probably would not have been able to face or that would have represented an emotional cost that was too high. However, if this mechanism is not overcome, if we fail to integrate it into our life experiences, it remains active and can lead to more complex dissociative disorders, such as:

what are the dissociative symptoms

Dissociative amnesia It is a disorder characterized by the inability to remember important events in our life, usually of a stressful or traumatic nature. That absence of memories ends up creating a state of confusion and insecurity that will not only affect our emotional stability but also prevent us from maintaining assertive and lasting social relationships.

Dissociative identity disorder. Formerly known as multiple personalities, it is distinguished by the presence of two or more well-defined personality states that occur interchangeably. When we adopt the other personality, our preferences, attitudes, and perspectives change and we will begin to suffer memory gaps with recent episodes. As a result, we will discover evidence of things we do not remember doing.

Depersonalization / derealization disorder. It is a complex alteration characterized by the feeling of strangeness and lack of familiarity with our body or actions. We can feel that we are inside a body that is not ours or experience a distance from the environment so that we perceive ourselves with a sense of unreality.

The damage involved blaming victims for not defending themselves

In the popular imagination, a person is considered to have been a victim of trauma if he shows signs of struggle, suffering and profound emotional involvement. However, that image corresponds only to one of the possible reactions to trauma, obviating the existence of the mechanism of dissociation.

We must bear in mind that trauma is not the fact itself, but the conjugation of the circumstances we live in, the meaning we confer upon them and our psychological coping resources. That means that we don’t all react in the same way and that, in the face of an aggression or risk situation, each person will activate the coping mechanism that they consider safer and more effective to survive: they will try to flee if possible; He will fight if he thinks he has a chance to win or will assume a passive attitude to try to reduce the impact of the trauma.

The choice of one or another coping mechanism will depend on the circumstances and our ability to adapt to them, which means that one choice is neither better nor more valid than another. In fact, the smartest decision, understanding intelligence as our ability to adapt to circumstances, is one that allows us to survive.

Unfortunately, although assuming a passive posture can literally save our lives in a situation of sexual abuse, many victims experience a deep sense of shame and guilt, which represents an added burden to the emotional pain caused by the trauma. If this is added to criticism and social prosecution for the way to face the event, the emotional price that the victim has to pay is too high. Therefore, blaming victims of sexual assault for not defending themselves is a terrible mistake

Example of a real case of dissociation: The victim of “The Pack”

A well-known case of dissociation before a traumatic event was the one suffered by the victim of “The Pack. ” A girl who, faced with the cruelty consciously exercised by a group of attackers that exceeded her in strength and number, opted for the only way out: to disconnect from reality. This explains why his face showed no obvious rejection reaction, why he didn’t defend himself and why his memories about that night are so vague and incongruous.

One of the judges described his reaction as strange, assuming that the lack of signs of a struggle and/or rejection meant implicit consent, which affected the sentence. Actually, that girl reacted as any victim of a sexual assault would not escape: when her unconscious realized that there was no way out, to survive and relieve pain, she had to “disconnect.”

Unfortunately, surviving this sexual assault was only the first test that the victim of “the pack” had to face because then the fault came, the shame for what happened and, later, the recrimination of a judiciary that He questioned his innocence about what was clearly a brutal and violent act. And he went from judging the aggressors, to judge the victim.

what is psychological dissociation

The worst part is that not only was this victim-blamed, but that sentence also blamed all other victims of sexual abuse who have only been able to resort to the dissociation mechanism to save their life and/or their psychological integrity. This sentence suggests that there is only rape when a woman prefers death to dishonor and is obliged to prove her innocence by challenging her aggressors.

However, we must not forget that all violations are not impulsive acts, there are many, as in the case of “The Pack” , in which the aggressors create a situation that subjectively annuls the victim. The most tragic, harmful and lasting violence is not usually the one that causes wounds in the body, but that symbolic one that implies the annulment of the will, humiliation and dehumanization. Worst of all, the suffering that violence leaves multiply when that pain is not recognized.

Psychological treatment of dissociation and dissociative symptoms

The approach to trauma and dissociative symptoms should be done in three stages: first, stabilize and emotionally strengthen the victim, then achieve emotional reprocessing of traumatic memories and finally, the phase of reconnection and reintegration of personality should be passed.

The essential technique to help our brain to re-process emotional trauma is EMDR, through which the synchronization of the cerebral hemispheres is facilitated so that the person can re-process what happened and integrate it into your life story, subtracting Your emotional impact This technique has a large number of scientific studies that support its efficacy and safety in the treatment of posttraumatic stress and dissociation.

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