Many who struggle with varying types of trauma end up developing dissociative disorders, sometimes referred to as PTSD dissociation. ¹ In short, traumatic events can become so overwhelming that an individual will dissociate the event as a coping mechanism.
However, such coping isn’t a healthy way to process traumas. Furthermore, those who attempt to dissociate with their traumas may end up developing other complications in their lives.
Throughout this article, we’re going to take a deeper look at PTSD dissociation (and other dissociative disorders). At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
Dissociation vs. Dissociative Disorders
Trauma is a complex issue that can have equally complex effects on a person’s psyche. For this reason, it’s important for us to properly define the differences between dissociation and dissociative disorders:
Simply put, dissociation is defined by a disconnection between a person’s feelings, memories, behaviors, thoughts, perceptions, and/or identity. Naturally, everyone will experience dissociation at some point in their lives. Common examples include daydreaming or zoning out.
The key difference between “normal” dissociation and a disorder is the effect it has on your life. If you find that your dissociative moments have interfered with your work, schooling, or social life, there’s a chance you’re struggling with a dissociative disorder.
It’s believed that 2% of the population struggles with dissociative disorders. Such statistics have not found any differences of its relativity among ages, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic backgrounds. ²
Still, dissociative disorders are more commonly diagnosed in women than men. While this may indicate that women struggle with this illness more than men, evidence suggests that men simply don’t seek out help as frequently for these symptoms.
The most common symptoms found within dissociative disorders include:
- Emotional detachment
- Feeling physically detached from one’s body
- Lacking a sense of self
- Memory loss (involving people, places, or events)
Types of Dissociative Disorders
Since symptoms vary between person to person, dissociative disorders are divided into the following categories:
- Dissociative Amnesia – Memory loss concerning an important event of period of time in one’s life. ³
- Dissociative Fugue – Wandering off and having no memories of a specific event or period of time. ³
- Depersonalization (Derealization) – Sense of being outside your body or watching your life from the outside. While classified as a disorder, some people may experience a single (or multiple) episode(s) of depersonalization. ⁴
- Dissociative Identity Disorder – When one experiences confusion and alterations concerning their identity. In more severe cases, this condition may lead to “split” personalities. ⁵
It’s also worth noting that some dissociative disorders are not specified as they don’t fit into a single category.
The Link Between Dissociation and Trauma
Among mental health experts, it’s common knowledge that those who experience trauma – notably, childhood trauma – are likely to develop dissociation disorders. In fact, 90% of people with dissociative conditions have experienced some kind of traumatic event(s) in their lives. ⁶
The trauma we associate with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often linked to a single event. ⁷ However, people with both PTSD and dissociative symptoms may have experienced ongoing trauma.
Dissociation as a Coping Mechanism
As mentioned, many people with develop dissociative behaviors as a means of coping with previous traumas.
When a trauma is occurring, it’s natural for our brains to dissociate with the environment. For example, a child experiencing abuse may find themselves in a dissociative state in order to escape the full experience of the trauma.
This process is complex and varies from person to person. For example, one child may enter a derealization state in order to make reality feel like a dream. Another child may simply try to forget the trauma over time. ⁸
On top of this, children may develop dissociative symptoms from emotional abuse and neglect. ⁹ However, these processes are much more difficult to identify than physical and sexual abuse.
Long-Term Dissociative Effects
While PTSD dissociation initially helps you cope with the stress induced by trauma, it can lead to other problems that may not immediately be present. These will largely present themselves in day-to-day life, from work to school to relationships.
In many cases, people with dissociative disorders likely don’t realize they’re using dissociation as a means of coping with previous traumas. This is one of the reasons many may not address the condition before receiving a diagnosis.
Trauma and Dissociation Age Onset
Dissociative disorders can appear in any people of any age group, and the severity of the condition largely depends on the severity of the trauma.
However, most research agrees that dissociative disorders are most common when a persons experience trauma during childhood. ¹⁰
More specifically, the most vulnerable age groups are children of preschool age (ages 4 to 5) and of pre-adolescents age (ages 8 to 9). Furthermore, dissociative disorders appear more commonly in those who have ongoing trauma before the age of 9. ¹¹
How Trauma and Dissociation Change the Brain
According to a 2018 review, children who experience trauma will also undergo changes in brain and neural connections. ¹² In turn, this can lead to the symptoms and behaviors we associate with PTSD dissociation.
While we don’t know the full depth of these changes, we understand it may lead to a decrease in limbic activity, an increase in frontal lobe activity, and alterations in communications between these regions. Naturally, we need more research until we understand the full depth of this topic.
What is PTSD Dissociation?
While PTSD and dissociation are closely related, they’re also considered separate conditions. In order to differentiate the two, some psychologists consider dissociative disorders a subtype (or subset) of PTSD. ¹³
As mentioned, PTSD typically develops from a single traumatic event. This may include witnessing a violent event, a natural disaster, or experiencing the loss of a loved one. Furthermore, PTSD can develop at any point in a person’s life, whereas dissociative disorders tend to begin in childhood. ¹⁴
With that said, people who develop PTSD during adulthood are less likely to develop dissociative disorders. On top of this, dissociative disorders are more commonly seen as a result of ongoing trauma rather than a single event.
What is the Dissociative Subtype of PTSD?
If you experience symptoms of both PTSD and a dissociative disorder, you’ll receive a diagnosis of PTSD with a dissociative subtype. As with other forms of dissociation, this is most commonly displayed in those who experienced childhood trauma and had more exposure to trauma.
How to Treat Dissociation
Many people with dissociative disorders don’t seek out treatment simply because they are unaware of what they’re struggling with. In turn, undiagnosed dissociation can lead to anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorder, and work and/or relationship issues.
Luckily, it is possible to recover from dissociative disorders and PTSD under the right treatment. This usually involves a combination of psychotherapies and medications.
Psychotherapy is the most important element here as it will allow you to safely confront and cope with your traumatic experience. On top of this, such therapies provide you with a better understanding of your thought processes and how to overcome dissociative symptoms.
If you went through ongoing childhood trauma, there’s a chance you developed PTSD and a dissociative disorder. However, if you developed PTSD during adulthood, then you’re less likely to develop dissociation.
In either case, both conditions can be properly treated. It’s vital you seek out treatment for either (or both) conditions as it will prevent further complications down the road.
Still have questions about PTSD dissociation?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
² National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): Dissociative Disorders
⁴ frontiers in Human Neuroscience: Past and Future Explanations for Depersonalization and Derealization Disorder: A Role for Predictive Coding
⁵ Psychiatry (MMC): Dissociative Identity Disorder
⁶ American Psychiatric Association: What are Dissociative Disorders?
⁷ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
⁸ HHS Public Access: Parents’ descriptions of young children’s dissociative reactions after trauma
¹⁰ Journal of Children & Adolescent Trauma: PTSD in Children Younger Than the Age of 13: Toward Developmentally Sensitive Assessment and Management
¹² Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports: Current Understanding of the Neural Mechanisms of Dissociation in Borderline Personality Disorder
¹³ A Journal of Psychiatric Neuroscience and Therapeutics: Dissociation in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Evidence from the World Mental Health Surveys