What Is Dissociation PTSD?

Reviewed by Dawn Brown, LPC, NCC

Published 12/11/2020

Several researches have attested that there is a strong connection between trauma, which primarily causes PTSD and dissociation. It has also been shown that the root cause of dissociation and dissociative disorders are long-term trauma. This causes an individual to develop dissociation as a coping mechanism, a way of allowing them to create a distance between themselves and any trauma that may seem to be unbearable.

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In instances where dissociation symptoms persist even in the absence of actual danger, it may extend the recovery from the trauma, or in a worst-case scenario, it may even prevent recovery from the trauma. According to a study, PTSD and dissociation are strongly connected. Changes that have been noticed in how the brain functions may provide further explanations regarding the connections that exist between both conditions.

What Is Dissociation?

Dissociation can be best described as a condition characterized by a disconnection between the thoughts, sensory experience, personal history, or sense of self of an individual. An individual experiencing dissociation may feel as though things around them are unreal. They may also lose their sense of time and a connection with identity and place.

Dissociation may cause disruptions in four areas of an individual's functioning, areas that would otherwise function together automatically and smoothly. These areas are:

  • Memory
  • Consciousness
  • Identity
  • Self-awareness and awareness of one's environment

A breakdown in these areas leads to symptoms of dissociation being exhibited by an individual. Symptoms of dissociation may range from just a mild feeling of detachment to more serious disconnection from reality aspects.

Symptoms Of Dissociation

If an individual has any dissociative disorder or PTSD, they may have felt as if they are "disconnected" from themselves at some point in time. Common symptoms of dissociation include the following:

  • Experiencing flashbacks of traumatic events
  • Inability to remember things for some time
  • Losing memories about certain people, places, information, events, or specific periods
  • A blurred or distorted sense of reality
  • A feeling of numbness and disconnection towards one's environment
  • A distorted sense of place and time
  • A feeling of detachment from one's emotions
  • A feeling of being a different person
  • Experiencing tunnel vision
  • Hearing voices inside one's head
  • Forgetting how one arrived at a place

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Causes Of Dissociation

The exact factors that may be responsible for causing dissociation are not known. However, certain factors contribute to the risk of individual developing symptoms associated with dissociation. These include:

Trauma

Often, dissociation may occur as a response to trauma. It may occur as a coping mechanism for an individual, to put some distance between themselves and the traumatic situation. When this occurs, it is referred to as peritraumatic dissociation. And it could occur after trauma-causing events like:

  • Physical assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Torture
  • Natural disaster
  • Childhood abuse
  • Accidents
  • Military combat

Substance Use

Substance use may also cause a person to develop symptoms of dissociation. A study has shown that more people who have dissociation are persons who have issues with substance abuse.

Related Mental Health Disorders

Dissociation may co-occur with some mental health issues. Some of these mental health issues include:

  • PTSD
  • Schizophrenia
  • Affective disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • OCD

Dissociative Disorders And Dissociation

Dissociative disorders are different from the "typical" dissociation as they can interfere with the work and other aspects of life of an individual.

General symptoms known to accompany dissociative disorders include the following:

  • Loss of memories involving certain places, people, or events
  • A feeling of physical detachment from one's body
  • Lack of self-awareness
  • Emotional detachment
  • Relationship struggles
  • Loss of an individual's jobs
  • Anxiety and depression

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Other symptoms tend to manifest based on the specific type of dissociative disorder an individual may be experiencing. While a wide spectrum of possible symptoms exists, ranging from mild symptoms to more severe symptoms, symptoms may vary from one person to another. However, there is a tendency that an individual's symptoms will be similar every time they occur. Various types of dissociative disorders may include the following:

  • Dissociative amnesia:

This type of dissociative disorder is quite common. It is characterized mainly by the loss of memory about important persons, events, places, or certain periods in an individual's life.

  • Dissociative fugue:

This dissociative disorder occurs when a person often wander off and has no memory about that period or an event.

  • Depersonalization or derealization:

Depersonalization is a term used to refer to a sensation where an individual feels they are outside their body or when they feel as if they are observing their life from a different perspective, similar to being an onlooker. Though about 50% of the adult population will experience a minimum of one depersonalization episode, it is usually classified as being a disorder if depersonalization begins to negatively affect the work-life or interpersonal relationship of an individual. Derealization may co-occur together with depersonalization, and it refers to a condition of feeling detached from one's environment.

  • Dissociative identity disorder 

An individual may experience identity alteration and identity confusion to varying extents if they develop this syndrome. This syndrome causes the individual's personality to switch between at least one or more varying alternative personalities.

  • Dissociative disorder not otherwise specified

This is a term used in referring to a dissociative disorder that could not fit into any of the above categories.

Trauma And Dissociation

There is a pretty strong connection that exists between dissociation and trauma. Ongoing trauma, particularly if the abuse was sexual, physical, or emotional or a form of neglect that occurred during an individual's childhood, may pose a very serious risk factor in determining how individuals develop certain dissociative disorders. This is why it is believed to be the primary root cause of nothing less than 90% of the people who have developed these conditions.

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Factually speaking, dissociative disorders have been associated with a frequency of abuse during childhood and neglect of virtually all psychiatric disorders. Ongoing abuse, especially if it frequently occurred during childhood, has shown to be the most common. However, a singular catastrophic traumatic episode that may occur in either children or adults may also trigger the development of certain dissociative disorders in individuals.

PTSD And Dissociation

Dissociation and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are also closely linked, and both conditions often occur together frequently. This is why some persons even consider dissociative disorders as being a subset or subtype of PTSD. However, the accompanying symptoms of both conditions, as well as their impact, maybe pretty different.

PTSD tends to develop after an individual experience a single trauma, either as an adult or as a child. While the trauma that is typically associated with most dissociative disorders shows that some particular age groups seem to be a lot more vulnerable than others, PTSD has shown to be less dependent on an individual's age. It is more related to how severe the traumatic experience was.

Usually, dissociative disorders tend to occur owing to trauma and stress that may have occurred in childhood, not usually in adulthood. Chronic trauma (trauma or abuse that occurred frequently) tends to be the root cause of dissociative disorders.

Dissociation that occurs without the impact associated with dissociative disorders tends to be very common with PTSD. When dissociation occurs with PTSD, it is very likely for dissociation symptoms to be intensified by PTSD, but this may usually short-lived.

Compared with people who have dissociative disorders, people who have "classic" PTSD generally seem to experience levels of trauma avoidance that are as well lower.

That being said, when some symptoms of dissociation that seem significant (such as derealization or depersonalization) occur, they may be capable of hindering or even worsen an individual's recovery of PTSD without treatment.

Treatment For Dissociation

If you may have previously experienced trauma or you still experience dissociation, it is advised that you seek help. Most people still seem unaware when they respond with any of these behaviors, even though dissociative disorders seem relatively common. If left untreated, this behavior may lead to anxiety, depression, or difficulty recovering from the originating trauma.

Fortunately, when recognized on time, recovery from PTSD, childhood trauma and dissociative disorders is possible. Typically a combination of medications and psychotherapy is administered.

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Undergoing treatment also tends to help individuals learn how to confront and cope with their traumatic experiences safely. They also learn how to face non-threatening experiences that may often be left unaddressed due to dissociative symptoms. The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) has a wealth of information on the connection between trauma and dissociation.

Individuals can get better from a combined treatment of medication and therapy. The nature of treatments may vary based on the severity of an individual's symptoms and the possible causes.

Treatment options may include the following:

Psychotherapy 

Undergoing psychotherapy may significantly help an individual in finding the cause of their dissociation. However, the aim is to help manage or, if possible, totally get rid of their symptoms.

Types of psychotherapy may include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Phasic trauma treatment
  • Family treatment
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • EMDR

Medications

The doctor may prescribe mood stabilizers, antidepressants, or other drugs to help with sleeping anxiety and issues.

If you think you may have PTSD, take this test to find out.