Dissociation from child abuse

Dissociation was used by many of us to deal with the abuse as children and adults. In situations of trauma dissociation is an automatic process. It protected us as children or victims in situations where we could not run or fight. For many of us it saved our sanity.

The more severe or protracted the abuse, the more the child will use dissociation to escape the horror or pain of a given situation. Survivors carry this skill into their adult life, continuing to use it as a way of avoiding difficulties in their lives. Many are not aware that they are dissociating as the process has become so automatic. Part of the journey of recovery from the trauma of child abuse involves learning to stay present while facing the reality of one’s trauma.

Abuse survivors often report that they “go away in my mind” or “stop feeling the pain.” Without the ability to dissociate, you would feel the full extent of trauma as it happens and afterwards, which could be completely devastating for you. The ability to dissociate is a critical part of people’s survival responses.

Some survivors of child abuse describe Dissociation as feeling as though they were not really there during the abuse, but were far away, perhaps watching from a distance or in a dream like state. Some survivors describe it as they split off from the abuse and floated upto the ceiling in a sort of out of body experience or into a crack in the wall. Some survivors can go further, and go completely deep inside themselves and shutting all around them out, sometimes creating alto egos or personalities to deal with the abuse. 

Many women and men who have been subjected to severe physical or sexual abuse during childhood suffer from long-term disturbances of the psyche. They may be invaded by nightmares and flashbacks–much like survivors of war or, conversely, may freeze into benumbed calm in situations of extreme stress. Two recent studies find that survivors of child abuse may also have a smaller hippocampus relative to control subjects. If substantiated, the discovery could fill out the profile of an abuse survivor and help define what constitutes abuse.

Changes in the hippocampus–the part of the brain that deals with short-term memory and possibly the encoding and retrieval of long term memory– could, researchers suggest, be wrought by hormones flooding the brain during and after a stressful episode. Such alterations are presumably reflected in the psychological aftermath of trauma. Between 10 and 20 percent of adult survivors of abuse are believed to suffer from dissociative disorders or from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): the estimate is uncertain because survivors who do not seek counseling are hard to identify.

Dissociation and PTSD are not sharply separated and often alternate in the same individual. Dissociation, often employed by children who cannot escape from the threat of abuse, is a means of mentally withdrawing from a horrific situation by separating it from conscious awareness. The skill allows the victim to feel detached from the body or self, as if what is happening is not happening to her or him.

People with PTSD tend to relive violent memories. They are easily startled, avoid cues that remind them of the original experience and become intensely agitated when confronted with such stimuli.

The child has no control over whether dissociation occurs. The brain becomes overwhelmed and makes the decision. The name for this survival mechanism is dissociative identity disorder (DID).

A child traumatized with physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse repeatedly (especially by someone upon whom the child relies for survival) is unable to hold onto two main thoughts simultaneously: I hate my father/mother/abuser. I love my father/mother/abuser. And so there is a split in consciousness.

The child’s mind determines whether this split will be “simply” buried in the mind to resurface later in adulthood as a repressed memory…or whether the split becomes dissociative. If the latter is true, the child continues to create dissociative selves to survive in a very cruel and terrifying world