Mental Health, Mental Illness in Marriage

Understanding Dissociation

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Dissociation is a word that is used for several different symptoms, and at times, is also understood differently by different professionals. Firstly I would like to explain Integration which is actually what you strive for as a key part of your healing.

Integration

In order to understand dissociation, it is helpful first to understand its opposite, that is, integration. In the context of dissociative disorders, integration can be understood as the organization of all the different aspects of personality (including our sense of self) into a unified whole that functions in a cohesive manner. Every one of us is born with a natural tendency to integrate our experiences into a coherent, whole life history along with a stable sense of who we are. Our integrative capacity helps us to be able to distinguish the past from the present and to keep ourselves in the present, even when we are remembering our past or perhaps even contemplating our future. Furthermore, it helps us develop our sense of self. The more secure and safe our emotional and physical environment as we grow up, the more we are able to further develop and strengthen this integrative capacity.

Each of us develops typical and lasting ways of thinking, feeling, perceiving and acting that are collectively called our personality. Of course, personality isn’t a “thing” that can be seen, or that lives and breathes, but rather is a shorthand term that describes our unique characteristic responses as complex, living beings. Usually, individuals function in a coordinated way so that they make smooth transitions between their response patterns to adjust and adapt to various situations, such as shifting gears in an automobile. They may be able to go from home to work and smoothly shift their thinking, feeling, decision making, and, yet still experience themselves as the same individual. Through this, our personality is predictable and stable. Nevertheless, to be most effective in our lives, we are always subtly changing, adjusting, adapting and reorganizing our personality as we learn and experience more. In this sense, our personality is actually pretty flexible.

Sense of Self

Over the course of our development, we gradually learn to connect our life experiences across time and situations with our sense of self.  We can then have a reasonably clear perception of who we are, and we are able to place these experiences in our “life history” as an integral part of our autobiography. Every one of us has a sense of self that which is a part of our personality and that ought to be consistent across our development and across different circumstances: “I am me, I am myself as a child, as an adolescent, as an adult, as a parent, as a worker. I am me, myself in good, in hard and in overwhelming circumstances. These circumstances and experiences all belong to me. My thoughts, behaviors, emotions, memories, and sensations, regardless of however pleasant or unpleasant- all belong to me.”

Dissociation

Dissociation is a major failure of integration that interferes with and changes our sense of self and our personality. Our integrative capacity can be chronically impaired if we are traumatized. It can also be disrupted or limited when we are exhausted, stressed, or even seriously ill, but in these cases, the disruption is temporary. Childhood traumatization can profoundly hamper our ability to integrate our experiences into a whole and coherent life narrative because the integrative capacity of children is far more limited than compared to adults and is still developing.

However, not all failures in integration result in dissociation. Integrative failures are actually on a continuum. Dissociation involves a parallel type of owing and disowning of an experience: While one part of you owns an experience, another part of you does not. Consequently, individuals with dissociative disorders do not feel integrated and instead feel fragmented as they have memories, thoughts, feelings, behaviors and so forth and they experience as foreign and uncharacteristic, as though these do not belong to themselves. Their personality is unable to “shift gears” smoothly from one response pattern to another; rather their sense of self and enduring patterns of response change from situation to situation and they are not very efficient at adopting new ways of coping. They experience more than a single sense of self, and they do not experience these selves as (completely) belonging to them.

Dissociative Parts of the Personality

These divided senses of self and response patterns are called dissociative parts of the personality. It is as though there are not enough mental connections mental connections or even enough links between one sense of self and another, between one set of responses and another. For instance, a person with a dissociative disorder has the experience that some painful memories of her childhood are not her: “I did not have those bad experiences; I am not that little girl. She is scared, but that is not my fear. She is helpless, but that is not my helplessness”. This lack of realization, this experience of “not me” is the essence of dissociation.

The function of each dissociative part of personality or self may range from extremely limited to more elaborate. The latter is particularly true in cases if dissociative identity disorder (DID). Dissociation takes many forms. Many dissociative symptoms are common in individuals with dissociative disorders but each individual may also have his or her own unique subjective experience of dissociation.

The Origins of Chronic Dissociation

Dissociation generally develops when an experience is too threatening or perhaps or even overwhelming at the time for an individual to have the ability to integrate it fully, especially in the absence of adequate emotional support. Chronic dissociation among parts of the personality or self may become a “survival strategy” in those who have experienced early childhood trauma. For some, dissociation allows an individual to attempt to try and go on with normal life by continuing to avoid becoming overwhelmed by extremely stressful experiences in both the past and the present. Unfortunately, it leaves one or more parts of the individual “stuck” in unresolved experiences and another part forever trying to avoid these unintegrated experiences.

It is imperative for you to know that in your journey toward understanding and coping with your dissociation, you do not need to focus immediately on the painful past. Rather, the first goal is usually to make sense of the dissociative aspects of yourself and to learn to deal more effectively with them so you are able to feel better in your everyday way of life. Resolving the past comes after you learn how to cope in the present with both your external and with your internal world.

However, there are environmental, social, and biological factors which make individuals more vulnerable to dissociation. A number of individuals may have had a biological tendency to dissociate if perhaps they have organic problems with their brain that make it harder for them to integrate experience in general. Young children have less ability to integrate traumatic experiences than adults as their brains are not yet mature enough to do so. Their sense of self and personality are not yet very cohesive, and thus they are far more prone to dissociation. And it has long been recognized that those without sufficient social and emotional support are far more vulnerable to developing chronic trauma-related disorders, particularly those who have experienced chronic childhood abuse and neglect.

Lastly, most families simply lack the skills to deal well with difficult feelings and topics; thus, they cannot help children who have been overwhelmed to learn effective emotional coping skills. Such skills are vital to overcoming dissociation and resolve traumatic experiences.

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