The Trauma of Adolescence in America
All across America, there are children suffering from adverse experiences, and many of these begin in the home. Frightening, dangerous, or violent events can cause severe side effects for children, whether they witness it or are the victims themselves. Most of us recognize that our experiences in our childhood can help to shape who we are. As we develop into adults, our understanding of the world is often shaped around the ideas we adopt in adolescence. Therefore, it is easy to understand how childhood trauma can lead to mental health issues later in life, such as dissociative disorders.
So what are dissociative disorders? What are the symptoms, and what causes them?
Dissociation, also known as disassociation, is a common psychology term referring to a detachment from your surroundings, and/or physical and emotional experiences. In other words, the individual does not ‘associate’ with internal and external stimuli the way others do. It is a defense mechanism many adopt to try and cope with various forms of stress, conflict, or even boredom in some cases.
In more detail, dissociation is understood on a continuum, depending on intensity. Furthermore, depending on how it manifests dissociation can also be understood as:
One study published in the Journal of Psychology found data to suggest that a history of childhood trauma might not be of uniform significance to the development of pathological and non-pathological dissociative tendencies. In other words, non-pathological dissociation may not be as closely linked to childhood trauma. This includes behaviors like daydreaming when one’s mind randomly detaches from what is right in front of them.
As for pathological dissociation, there is a common school of thought connecting these tendencies to childhood trauma. Some examples of pathological dissociation include:
- A blurred sense of identity
- Memory loss (amnesia)
- Feeling detached from yourself and your emotions
- A perception of the people and things around you as distorted and unreal
- Significant stress or problems in important areas of life
- Inability to cope well with emotional or professional stress
- Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors
The severity and frequency of these symptoms may vary, depending on what kind of dissociative disorder an individual is struggling with.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association, defines three forms of dissociative disorders:
The main symptom is memory loss that is more severe than normal forgetfulness that can’t be explained by a medical condition. More specifically, it is a difficulty remembering important information about yourself, other people, and important events in your life.
Dissociative amnesia may surround a particular event, such as combat or abuse. In other cases, it may be concerning information about identity and life history. The onset of amnesic episodes is typically sudden. Each episode can last minutes, hours, days, months or even years in rare instances. Furthermore, an individual may experience multiple episodes throughout her life.
This dissociative disorder involves continuous or episodic feelings of detachment from:
Depersonalization is almost as if the individual is watching a movie about their own life. They observe without actually experiencing it.
With the derealization side of it, other people and things may feel detached, foggy, or dreamlike. Time may feel slowed down or sped up. In other words, the world around them may seem unreal and disconnected.
An individual might experience depersonalization, derealization, or both at once. Sometimes symptoms will only last a matter of moments, or they might return over the years. The average onset age of these episodes is 16 years old. However, depersonalization episodes can start anywhere from early to mid-childhood. Less than 20% of people with this dissociative disorder start experiencing episodes after the age of 20.
Dissociative identity disorder
For a long time, people used to label this condition multiple personality disorder. This would seem to make sense since the condition is commonly characterized by an individual alternating between multiple identities.
A person with dissociative identity disorder (DID) may feel like one or more voices are trying to take control of their head. Often these identities may have their own unique features, including:
There are even cases where different identities have their own personal history and physical qualities like the need to use eyeglasses. Often there are differences with how familiar each identity is with the others.
People living with DID typically also experience dissociative amnesia, with gaps in memory of everyday events, personal information, and traumatic experiences.
With DID, women are more likely to be diagnosed. Women more frequently present with acute dissociative symptoms. Conversely, men are more likely to deny symptoms and traumatic experiences. Additionally, men are more likely to exhibit more violent behavior, rather than amnesia or fugue states. As a result, there is an elevated likelihood of false negative diagnosis with men.
Causes of Dissociation
There are numerous situations that can lead to the development of dissociative disorders. Overall, stress is a common cause of dissociation. When an individual is dealing with inner conflict, they may start dissociating when thinking about it. For those who experience stress in social settings, they might dissociate when around people. Whatever the circumstances, dissociation is an attempt to cope with some kind of stress.
In some cases, people who consume certain drugs often report severe dissociation and panic attacks. This reaction may also be brought on by distortions or impairment of our senses, like migraines or light sensitivity. Either way, stress factors influence the development and manifestation of dissociations.
Trauma is often considered a primary cause of dissociation. How that trauma occurs and what the impact is may vary, but the feelings of detachment are often similar.
The Cycle of Trauma
It is understandable how dissociation stems from trauma. After all, being present and “in the moment” when we are severely traumatized is incredibly painful. The feeling of powerlessness that comes from intense events and being the victim of abuse can be devastating. Thus, the psyche fights to protect itself by trying to disconnect from what’s happening to us. Our mind attempts to make the traumatic experience more tolerable to endure by detaching from the experience.
For example, many victims of abuse say that they felt like they were watching themselves be abused from the third person’s perspective. Some say it seemed like they were watching a movie rather than being a participant. This is a way the mind protects itself through dissociation. Due to the connection between trauma and dissociation, symptoms or episodes can reoccur until an individual can resolve the emotions relating to the initial trauma.
Additionally, episodes of dissociation can be exceedingly unpleasant, disturbing, and debilitating. Many individuals describe it as the most horrifying experience they’ve ever had. Moreover, experiencing dissociation can actually create new symptoms or aggravate other underlying issues. This creates a cycle of trauma, as the impact of the symptoms can make the individual’s mental condition even worse.
Connecting Childhood Trauma and Dissociative Disorders
With the strong ties between traumatic experiences and dissociative disorders, it is easy to understand how dissociation as an adult is quite often rooted in childhood trauma. Due to the fact that a child’s brain is still developing, they are often unable to cope with their trauma in a healthy way on their own.
Children depend on their caregivers. However, their caregivers can be unable or even unwilling to help them overcome trauma without severe aftereffects. Not to mention, in some cases the child’s caregivers are the cause of the trauma. This is not always intentional. However, even with good intentions or out of ignorance, the effects on the child’s psyche can be detrimental to their development.
Because a child cannot resolve stress or trauma on their own, they can instinctively dissociate. This usually occurs early and routinely. Not every trauma seems evident or significant, but even the little things can be very traumatic to a child. Therefore, children often experience many traumas and “microtraumas” early in life. As a result, they can fall into a habit of dissociation. Eventually, it can result in two main dissociative behaviors.
Firstly, individuals can suffer from episodes of dissociation, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Secondly, we may adapt to dealing with emotional distress by participating in dissociative behaviors. This can include developing addictions to:
Essentially, people will obsess over anything that helps them avoid dealing with painful emotions. If it allows them to be outside of themselves, it numbs them to the effects of their traumas. One could almost say that addiction itself is like a dissociative disorder. After all, it is a strategy many people use to disconnect from their emotional stress and traumatic experiences. It allows them to detach from pain by numbing their sense and smothering their memories. Therefore, it only makes sense that substance use disorder and dissociative disorders are common co-occurring conditions.