I’ve heard many definitions of trauma over the years, but I have a very simple, but practical one.
If you look up the Greek word for “wound” it is τραῦμα. Guess what that means – yes, it’s “trauma”. In other words, traumas are wounds. You can experience physical wounds such as “trauma to the head”, as well as “emotional wounds” such as rejection and loss.
Some therapists describe traumas as “big T’s and “little t’s”, meaning that there are significant traumas such as physical or sexual abuse, and others that are less so, but still traumatic – such as a broken relationship, emotional abuse or bullying (realising that for some, these can be very serious and painful).
What is Dissociation?
The concept of dissociation is a very complex one, and there is still very much debate as to its definition and types (Nijenhuis and van der Hart 2011). Very basically, when the physical or the emotional trauma (usually going together) are too great for a child or young person to cope with, dissociation develops.
For the purposes of this article, I’m not talking about simple day dreaming, but rather when the body, mind and brain simply cannot cope with an overwhelming threat to self and the mind/brain develop dissociative Parts to contain the memories and remove them from consciousness. Why would our minds do that? Well, it’s a blessing really, for to remember all the bad that has happened to us over our lifetimes, would surely be unbearable.
However, we need to remember that not everybody who has experienced a trauma will develop a dissociative disorder. It can be a very individual experience, compounded by many factors (such as level of support the person gets at the time, personality sensitivities etc). The age at which it occurs is also very important. Both a child and an adult may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after an experience that is traumatic, but dissociation occurs from traumas experienced only in childhood. Also, the trauma in childhood has usually been repetitive and from quite a young age (lower primary school age).
Some dissociation is also caused by drug use, sleep deprivation or illness. However, some researchers might argue that such experiences are altered states of consciousness, not true dissociation.
In this article, my view of dissociation is that it’s the natural coping strategy of mind and brain to cope with extraordinary threats to life and Self. It is automatic, occurs very young, and is frankly, a gift that allows children and young people to survive horrible experiences.
Once the dissociative process starts, it becomes easier to dissociate later. As we get older though, it gets progressively harder to truly dissociate. In other words, unless you had a number of traumas in childhood and subsequently dissociated, there is little chance of developing a serious dissociative disorder as an adult.
Dissociation in Adulthood
A key feature though, is that while the dissociation was very necessary when younger, it can be a problem later on. As the young person becomes an adult, the dissociative experiences continue and can make day to day life difficult. Having said that, for some adults who are still being hurt in some way, the dissociation remains the key process to cope with the pain, such as those with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
Finally, it’s also important to remember that dissociation is on a continuum. Some forms of dissociation are easier to manage than others. However, I do believe that dissociation plays an important part in many mental health disorders that often goes unrecognised. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is an example, where many people with this disorder can be quite dissociative, but the dissociative element is not acknowledged as an issue. I feel that many people are misunderstood as ‘sabotaging’ their treatment, or when things seem to get stuck for no apparent reason, when in fact there is dissociation that is compounding the recovery process.
As someone trained and experienced in trauma and dissociation, I would count it a privilege if you make an appointment with me – whether you want to start your healing or learn how to help someone who has experienced such pain.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward is a psychotherapist with over 20 years’ experience, providing therapy to adults, adolescents, children, couples, and families. His areas of professional interest include the use of EMDR therapy to help with recovery from domestic violence, child abuse, PTSD, depression and anxiety; family therapy; and working with victims of spiritual and ritual abuse.
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- Nijenhuis ER, van der Hart O J, (2011) Dissociation in trauma: a new definition and comparison with previous formulations, Trauma Dissociation 12 (4) 416-45.