What is Dissociation?

By Sara Lambert

Dissociation is the act of separating something from your awareness. It is an important defense mechanism that everyone has against becoming overwhelmed by the noise and visual chaos of daily life. When things get too much, we simply switch off pieces so we don't have to hear them, see them, or know about them. Usually we don't actually decide to do this. Our brain does it automatically for us. When a child is being overwhelmed by the pain and fear of some traumatic event like being beaten up or raped, she may use dissociation to mentally escape a situation which she can not escape physically. Children are especially good at this. They still have wonderful, unlimited imaginations that allow them to shape their world beyond the boundaries of "reality". So during trauma they can float up to the ceiling, disappear into a wall, or sit with Jesus on a cloud, and so escape experiencing the trauma being done to them. Multiple personality defence is one variation of this dissociative process. Alter selves are created by a child to take her place while she is being traumatised. Dissociation is a highly efficient defence against physical and emotional pain. It works quickly and thoroughly. Because of this, it is very addictive. A child who has been traumatised repeatedly learns to use dissociation as an automatic response to anything dangerous or frightening. The problem is that she has to dissociate as soon as something looks like being dangerous, or else she will experience pain. So she becomes hypervigilant for any signs of potential danger and, the minute she sees one, she dissociates. She does not wait to find out whether it really was dangerous or not. After a while, it isn't even her choice. Her brain and body dissociate have habituated to dissociation. So, even when she has grown up and the trauma has stopped, she is still living in constant fear. It's a sad way to live.

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If you are going to work with ritual abuse survivors, you must also get educated if you want to be effective. And you must learn to be humble. Trauma survivors do not need to be around ignorant, modern-day Pharisees. Survivors in pain need people who will connect with them on an emotional level, get right down in there where they are, and listen. --Kathleen Sullivan