What Are Dissociative Disorders?
Dissociative disorders have been considered to be rare, but a recent analysis of international studies suggest that they affect 10-11% of people at some point in their life. Dissociation is often a result of a traumatic experience and can lead to emotional numbness. This condition is often overlooked and misdiagnosed.
Dissociation is a biological protection mechanism that separates your conscious awareness from frightening feelings or memories. Symptoms exist on a continuum from mild sensations of fogginess to feeling numb or disconnected from self. It allows the person to compartmentalize and disconnect from aspects of traumatic and troubling experiences that could otherwise overwhelm their capacity to cope. Compartmentalization is the unconscious psychological defense mechanism that assists with the avoidance of mental discomfort.
The well known survival mechanisms of ‘fight and flight’ are part of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Dissociation is considered to be part of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system – adding three additional responses to the well known ‘freeze’ response. These mechanisms are known as ‘fright, flag, and faint’.
- Fright response is described as toxic immobility – inability to move or scream, numbness and insensitivity to pain without losing consciousness, experiencing an out of body sensation – known as depersonalization.
- Flag response is described as the loss of perception of sound, sight, and feelings that what is happening around you isn’t real – known as derealization.
Faint response is described as an emotional response to disgust – triggering a vagus nerve dysregulation which promotes nausea, vomiting, and fainting.
In some cases with those who have endured childhood sexual abuse it is reported that individuals experience a symptom known as analgesia, or the inability to feel pain.
When healing from traumatic memories it is essential to connect to your emotional and somatic (body) responses in a safe environment. Operating in your “window of tolerance” is crucial when working on processing traumatic events. This is the optimal zone of your nervous system arousal – where you are able to respond effectively to your emotions.
Therapy that is focused on mindfulness – staying in the present moment, somatic processing, and a trauma-focused psychotherapy model is recommended.