Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Rest of the Spectrum

Generally, dissociation is thought of as occurring on a spectrum.

Last post, I talked about the way in which we all use dissociation as a way to conserve energy or take a "mental vacation." That's one end of the spectrum. I also mentioned, however, that sometimes dissociation occurs as a defense or protective mechanism in the face of a perceived or actual threat. As we move through the spectrum, we see dissociative experiences which are more in line with trauma responses.

I think it's time for another operational definition. For the sake of our conversation here, lets define trauma as "an event or experience that, at the time of occurrence, exceeds the range of that which one believe him or herself able to manage." Implied here is the fact that trauma is a subjective experience. What may be traumatic to a child might not be to an adult. What may be traumatic to someone in America may not be to someone in Afghanistan. What may be traumatic to someone with little support network or resources may not be to someone with a network of family, friends, and professional supports. What may be traumatic to me may not be to you.

So, dissociating is one way we humans have to cope with traumatic experiences- those experiences beyond that which we believe ourselves able to manage. When something happens to us that is so bad we can't manage it in it's entirety, we may dissociate. Some trauma survivors report having checked out, fuzzed out, or blacked out at the time of the trauma. Others report feeling as though they left their body and were standing beside themselves or floating above. Some report experiencing a split of self through which one part of self experienced the trauma, but not all of self. Sometimes we dissociate an aspect of our experience but not the whole experience, for example: being able to see the trauma as it unfolds, but not hear sounds, feel somatic sensations, or experience the accompanying emotions. In these cases, the dissociation is protective. It allows our experience to be managed, to be lived through, by limiting our awareness of it. In the cases of extreme or prolonged trauma, this dissociation may be so significant that entire occurrences, events, or parts of self may become unknown.

Long after a trauma has "ended," individuals may still dissociate when they are reminded of the trauma. These reminders are called triggers. They come in many different forms. Stay tuned!!!