Dissociation and the Emotional Delay Response

Dissociation and the Emotional Delay Response

I am sure you might have experienced this at some point in your life: something happens to you, and only later do you have an emotional response to what just happened.

You have a delayed emotional response.

When it happens occasionally, it is not such a big deal. When you have gone through trauma, however, delayed emotional responses can become more frequent, and this can be upsetting and disturbing.

The Nature of a Delayed Emotional Response

A delayed emotional response is part of the “freeze” response of the nervous system. A full-on “freeze” response is when you go numb and play dead until the danger has passed. It is an extreme form of dissociation that is biologically hardwired in your system for the sake of survival.

There are many degrees of dissociation below the full-fledged “freeze” response.

The delayed emotional response is one of them.

Post-Traumatic Stress and Dissociation

When you have too much emotional input all at once and you are not able to process what is going on and respond at the moment, your mind “zooms” out and waits until your energy is more available or until you are in a safer place.

When this happens frequently, you might feel that you have gaps in your memory, which is a typical dissociative symptom.

The Window of Tolerance and How the Brain Becomes Conditioned

A delayed emotional response can become habitual and can start to occur without an apparent stressor, though often something has caused a trigger before your mind disconnects.

You disconnect when you feel overwhelmed, and feeling overwhelmed can become a conditioned response.

When you feel emotionally overwhelmed, which is what happens when you are traumatized, your capacity to deal with further stressors becomes limited. Your window of tolerance or emotional resilience has decreased because your energy is still occupied in struggling with the emotional residue of your trauma.

You become prone to feeling overwhelmed and thus dissociate, go numb, or have a delayed emotional response for the future; this will continue until you deal with the emotional residue related to your past.

The Delayed Emotional Response and Healing PTSD

Becoming aware of how you dissociate and to which degree you dissociate is a first step in working towards healing.

If you are or have been doing counseling or therapy, you might have become aware of the delayed response within the therapy process, and this can be a good thing. It gives you a measure of to what extent you dissociate, and as you progress in the therapy process, you will start to notice that the gap between what is occurring and your emotional response begins to close.

When your resilience and trust grow, and you can gradually allow yourself to feel emotion in the moment, healing will become a present reality.

Do you have a delayed emotional response and how does that show up for you? Leave your comments here below.

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  1. Karen  February 18, 2018

    Wow is this timely. I lost my husband last July and thought I must be heartless as everyone one around me cried and reacted in what I would have thought was a normal response. Not me. I was the go to gal.
    I continued on and it is only now that it is hitting me what a mess have been left and the emotions are overwhelming.
    This type of delayed response is me to a T.
    When I was young we had foster children in and out of our home and I was conditioned not to get upset when they leaved. I have had this delayed response since I was a very young child and thought I was somehow flawed. This is something I can now take to therapy and look at. Thank you Roland once again your blogs hit the spot.

    • Roland  February 18, 2018

      Hi Karen. Thanks for sharing a little of your life’s story here. Interesting you mention that your delay response has been conditioned from childhood.

  2. Donna Bunce MSW  February 18, 2018

    This is a yes yes for me, as I was not allowed to have an emotional response in my childhood home. Both parents suffered and died in a lifelong trauma state. I however started having awareness of feelings after safely getting off the 16 years of numbing and poisonous psychiatric medications. While on the drugs, anger and rage led me around on a leash. As I began to feel feelings in relation to what transpired in the therapy session, the experience came in a day or two later! My first clue that I was not exactly online! With the direct experience of bio/neuro-feedback called “Brain Paint” the dots and dashes slowly connected. (I changed my brain from the wounding of trauma!) My online experience of the moment increased! Feelings are the spice…otherwise food is dull and not really interesting! Add the spice and BAM what a difference is this experience of LIFE!!
    (and please forgive the people who told me to just stop dissociating! as they knew not what they said!)


    • Roland  February 18, 2018

      Hi Donna. Great to hear you have made progress through using neuro-feedback (“brain paint”).

  3. Elizabeth  February 18, 2018

    Dissociation, for me, is a chronic condition. I lose time everyday, because of my failure to remain grounded in the here and now. I have had years of treatment, some good, some not-so-good, and a smaller amount that has been excellent.
    It seems that my treatment consisted largely of a cycle of retraumatization. This occurred because I have had no treatment for about 15 years. I have had several long inpatient stays, two of which were very helpful, but without the proper follow-up, I have been unable to take the tools I have learned and incorporate them into my daily life, with any degree of consistency. I have attempted to “treat myself,” which has been the number one factor in the retraumatization.
    I have been told that I have severe phobia of my own emotions, and every time I have been close to remembering anything, Drs. and therapists have back- off, fearing I might hurt myself, or worse, since suicidal ideation, along with serious attempts are part of my history, but are no longer seen as an option by me, so, I am grateful for that.
    Besides the mere fact that many Drs, and therapists do not believe in Dissociative Disorders whatsoever, I am now left with only Medicare and very little income.
    At 57, it appears that my worst fear will be realized; that my life will end before I have ever had the chance to truly live.
    I have had to move into a phase of acceptance, which others think means I have “given up.” I have not given up, I have just realized that, given the above mentioned limitations, it seems like the right, or only thing to do. I feel I have tried everything I can, and dissociation is pretty much all I know, all I have ever known. My support system is very weak as well, and living alone does not work in my favor, either. I have had the privilege of working with some of the best minds in the field, and, have learned a lot, but, again, ineffective at incorporating them into my life post-discharge.
    I believe I have much to offer to others, and have done so. However, as it applies to my own recovery, have been a failure.
    Those of you who have found good treatment, and are working hard, please be grateful, and make the most of every resource available to you. I have seen others recover, and you can, too!

    • Roland  February 18, 2018

      Hi Elizabeth. Thank you for sharing your honest and humble comment. When the hurt runs deep, it can take time before the seed that you have sown, through therapy work and introspection, to start to show.

    • CindyD  February 19, 2018

      My own experiences are similar to about 85%+ of what you have written. The living alone a long time has effected me in both positive and negative ways.

      I have DID and PTSD from decades of trauma. As far as dissociation it is frequent and often I am unaware of it. As I’ve disconnect (over the years) from myself and my surroundings due to severe anxiety and frequent flashbacks – I also had a long period of time when I felt completely disconnected with even my closest and dearest family members, adult kids, and friends. Many friends just disappeared and never returned. Sometimes I found it hard to even identify the photos of my own family on my walls (I WAS WAY Disconnected and dissociative and ended up hospitalized sometimes.)

      My point in telling you this I wondered if you’ve even heard of TimeBanks? All over the world there are people who need help, but it seems there is no one or no money to pay for the help you may need (for home repairs, physically challenging choirs or maybe you have a talent to offer someone else). Anyway – I am in a wheelchair and lost most of my physical functioning – and met the now-director of our TIMEBANK in Maine. I have been a part of timebanking for several years (people helping each other and also asking for help for TIME credits – no money changes hands, but you do keep track of how many hours you worked for someone and how much time someone spent helping you).

      Through the work of helping – kindness and compassion is a much discussed and essential part of a TIMEBANK my life has improved and hope is getting through. I was so lonely after my divorce, and had very few anyones to talk to. But our TIMEBANK also meets together once a month –
      talk and pot lucks or hold community BBQ s, and the members get to connect in different ways, too – not just working for time credits; we become connected in a way I never thought possible. I have many friends now I can call and talk to or do things with. I not feel alone in this world.

      I have discovered that by connecting with these folks who practice kindness and compassion and caring and their TIME – I am more present in the world around me. Feeling alone in the world does not help with dissociation. Being connected with safe, kind people does.

      I am wondering if there might be a TIMEBANK in your area or a group of people who are caring and kind to whom you can reciprocate?
      I hope my story helps and if you want to know more about TIMEBANKING – 20/20 did a segment a couple years ago that you can find on Google, or you can check other links.

      This video is one of the quickest, easiest demonstrations to follow I’ve seen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aB8ifVJ34JU
      (I was SOOOOO anxious about trying our MaineTimebank or going to any of the events I dragged my feet for sometime. Then I got really sick and these people saved my life and my sanity.)

      Best of luck to you and I hope you get to enjoy new people and surround yourself with some kind friends. CIndyD

      • Barbara  February 19, 2018

        Wow, thanks for this great info!

      • Donna G  February 19, 2018

        Thank you so much for all that info. re: the timebank, Cindy! Yes, that is what’s needed b/c we do need each other. I live alone & I don’t know if there is a timebank in our area but I will check it out. I’m so glad you are not alone anymore. If I didn’t have the Lord in my life I have to say I don’t think I would be here anymore, b/c He gives me a sense of not being totally alone.

    • Barbara  February 19, 2018

      Morning all, from central Canada – Elizabeth, my spouse thought I could just say, me too! I felt such validation reading of your experience. I just completed a series of rTMS treatments (28) and the outcome may have had the effect of activating my PFCortex but I can’t tell because I just can’t. Ask me, how are you feeling, and I scan the room as quickly as possible thinking, how the hell should I know and what works best for you? I’m 57 too. In April, my mom gave me some deathbed confessions about my first months and years that explain how dissociation came to be my entire life and personality. There are very few therapeutic stones left unturned for me – it seems that each treatment for either depression or anxiety has been enough to keep my window of tolerance open (no successful suicide) but doesn’t touch my core distorted/maladaptive beliefs. Beliefs that are based on truths, not wild speculation. I was there, I lived it – as parents, what did they think was going to result? I’ve been a “buck stops here” person, a professional champion and advocate for any vulnerable population I could find, yet here I am crippled by the reality of my own infancy. Thanks for listening, and thank you Roland – good work

  4. Jo Davis  February 18, 2018

    As I worked through therapy I often found this to me true. I would go home and several days later I would have all this ‘stuff’ to say. Having complex early childhood trauma, freezing was a very natural thing for me. I of course did not understand that for years. Although I have found that I still am not often able to “speak” , my throat freezes, i am able to write it out. Have you found that with your clients?
    Over all I do well now, it is a continued journey.

  5. Anita  February 18, 2018

    Thank you this makes sense to me. I suffered childhood abuse and recognise when I now disassociate. Learning to ground myself is helping and also education.

  6. rose  February 18, 2018

    Every time someone severely emotionally abuses me, especially family members, I can’t say anything or else start talking around the abuse. I am 63 and the only person in my life who has not emotionally abused me is thank goodness, my husband. I have so much rage at my daughter and son-in-law for over a decade of emotional abuse is just to have no contact with them even though it means I gave up my grandchildren. I just couldn’t take it anymore but I do miss my grandchildren dearly. I can see my grandchildren if I’m willing to put up with my daughter’s abuse. She doesn’t listen when I speak up for myself so guess I have to choose my dignity and self-respect over my grandchildren. Am I wrong?

  7. Linda  February 18, 2018

    I have had to learn to recognize when I’m in the process of dissociating. Previously, I wouldn’t know I had been triggered for about a week. The trigger event was not in my consciousness. Then several days later I would collapse into a depressed state, pull the blankets over my head, and refuse all communication. I thought I was bipolar. Sometimes I would act out in a rage. Sometimes i would be self destructive, cutting or getting rid of things I loved. When I began to hear about triggers, I started looking back to find the triggering event. Eventually I knew my triggers and would try to structure my life so i could avoid them. By this time the delayed response was down to zero. Eventually I learned how to recognize the process as it was occurring and I would fight against it. But that only made it stronger. So I learned to talk to myself compassionately, reminding myself that I was not a child facing a raging parent, that I was not going to die, and most people in the world can handle imperfect people like me. I learned to stop replaying the incident in my mind at the same time. Now I can stop a trigger in a few seconds and have normal emotional responses.

  8. Nancy  February 18, 2018

    I definitely have this freeze response or maybe a delayed response and it is generally when someone treats me in a not-so-nice way and I don’t recognize it as abusive or unkind. I’ll get feelings of upset but I won’t have feelings of anger or outrage until days later when I go hey, that was not nice!! My initial feeling is embarrassment or self-criticism. I’m slowly getting better with this after a lot of work

    • Hele  February 22, 2018

      Hey Nancy,
      I know exactly what you are saying. All I can add is, “me too”.

  9. Jayne  February 18, 2018

    I find that if I see someone who is a trigger now or do some gradual exposure therapy; the day after I get a migraine. Could this be what you’re talking about? I’ve been suffering from migraines since I got hurt 11 months ago!

  10. Shannon  February 19, 2018

    I had severe PTSD 11 years ago that has left me with constant anxiety I had the freeze response to the point I would curl up in a corner afraid to move could even reach for a drink or move a muscle although I am now able to live my life somewhat everything I do takes an effort that adds to my anxiety I had extreme drama throughout my childhood in at the age of 55 I had a very Trumatic experience that lasted for seven months everything in my path seem to come together jumping into my mind I fight through it and hide it from my family as much as I can but it’s not like living a full life things that I love to do I still do but with difficulty seems my brain is always try to protect me so if I don’t move I can’t be hurt that was 11 years ago but I love life and I’ve never had depression thank God the doctors said it was the worst PTSD that ever seen wonderful LOL

  11. Catherine  February 19, 2018

    I struggle with staying in the here and now. 3 consecutive marriages involving various forms of abuse, a workaholic distant and shaming though committed father, all spell trouble. Thank God for the current waves of change and approaches wrapped around this. I’m in my 60’s, but I still have life, that is to be lived well.

  12. JG  February 19, 2018

    This makes so much sense. I have the delayed emotional response, at times full on freeze, but mostly now the delayed response with dissociation on a regular basis. I can remember some things really clearly and strongly and then blanks, gaps, a vague feeling I should know something. I have just had am incredibly traumatic 6 months with a Therapist who tried to say that he’d healed the source of my trauma and I was all fixed and just needed to learn new life skills. He then put intense pressure on me to reconnect with my husband, told me I was abusive, manipulative, playing games and doing things like copying my husband in on our emails and I was getting more and more overwhelmed and ‘crazy’ doing weird stuff just trying to cope. I’ve come on in leaps and bounds since I fired him. I thought it was just me, all my fault. I believed him! Thank you for the insight you’ve given me today. Every piece of insight and understanding helps.

  13. Glenn  February 19, 2018

    I recently went through a breakup with my girlfriend and it severely traumatized me as it was very sudden and there was no indication of this leading up to the breakup. I went into depression, virtually lost all sense of purpose and routine in my life. I became robotic, completely dissociated from emotions while experiencing a deep-seated sense of loss, including a blow to my sense of self-worth. My ex partner prohibited me completely from making any contact and her only explanation in the text she sent me in which she used to announce the breakup was that she no longer felt anything for me anymore. What traumatized me was that earlier in the day, before I received the text, she communicated to me that she loved me and at no time during the relationship did I do anything to cause this breakup. In fact, I treated her like a queen and we had a very close relationship throughout. We had discussed many times living out our years together. Her back-round, in short, was one of abusive and failed relationships. We are both over 50. I have recently re-established contact with her and I see her occasionally. She told me that, for one, there was no-one else that came into her life to cause this breakup and secondly, that it was not through anything I did or did not do, but that she just felt dead inside. She said I must just give her time and space and that at some point in the future, when she re-connects with her emotions, she will give our relationship another chance but currently, all she can give me is friendship and I have agreed to this although indicating to her that I would want to rekindle our relationship when..in her words..she finds herself again. She said she does not know why she suddenly felt nothing, that she did not want to feel this way but that she truly feels nothing and just wants to be alone for now. So the purpose of my comment here is two-fold. Firstly, I would like to know what is the cause of her suddenly feeling dissociated from her emotions and is this a permanent disorder or will she eventually surface from it at some point. I have never experienced anything like this. I believe she is being honest. Secondly, what is the best way for me to support her through this period? I am dealing with my own trauma and I believe I am doing better. My concern is for her and what she is going through. Would appreciate any advise you can assist me with.

  14. Susanne Zapatero  February 19, 2018

    Dear Roland
    Thank you for the blogs you present. I love the clarity you bring with what you write.
    As a therapist myself and someone who has come through layers of trauma , when I read your posts I feel a sense of recognition and validation. Delayed emotional response has been a structure I have used to manage the overwhelm of what I couldn’t make sense of. Revisiting situations after the event and not being able to talk about what happened only kept hypervigilance reinforced and implicitly active. I caught myself doing just this the other day when someone made a play for my attention inappropriately. I noticed the shock first then the practicalities of ensuring my safety. Difference this time was that I was able to identify what I was experiencing and I was able to talk about it with my own therapist and process the frightenness that had history attached to it.
    Thank you again for your insight and clear explaintions

  15. Rhonda  February 19, 2018

    This is me right down to a tee I have noticed that when I went to go deeper into my past that I completely shut down and it has got worse as I got elder.so thanks for the insight. Now I can start moving forward.

  16. Rene  February 19, 2018

    Right now I identify with Elizabeth. And I am learning to observe myself throughout the day and I have discovered I have so many triggers. I can disconnect, feel numb and unemotional for days and sometimes I start to drink to feel. I have read that early childhood trauma affects us differently than later trauma and therefore our brain does not react similarly to “go to” treatments. I am better than I was and I will continue to be. At my worst I go hang out with people where I don’t have to say anything but can just be somewhere else for awhile.

  17. Esther  February 20, 2018

    I had broken up with a great guy just weeks before I entered into an abusive manipulationship with my exhusband for 23 years, I never ever thought of my exboyfriend during those years at all, never ever, not once but once I escaped the abuser and relocated thousands of miles away I found my exboyfriend’s picture and everything just rushed in and even though I cannot remember any of his details like his last name or his family’s last name or where they lived (I was engaged to this wonderful man) I was overwhelmed with grief and sadness… I am soo sad that I cannot even remember my exboyfriend’s last name so I cant even try to find him to make amends for the way I mistreated him when we dated. I used to talk to his mother and sister and I cannot even remember their names…WOW.I am in DV counseling now and my therapist said it was disassociation all those years but as soon as I relocated and felt safe my exboyfriend’s memory came to the surface. I feel ashamed that I forgot him but I still can’t remember a lot of our relationship-how we met, conversations at all.

  18. April  February 21, 2018

    This pattern was set up in me early on and I frequently get stuck in “freeze mode” for months at a time. Hopefully I can break this pattern.

    • Donna  February 21, 2018

      Do you have any tools whereby you can work on breaking your patterns. I used to do just what you described but it’s so much better now. I hope that gives you some hope, but it does take someone else working w/ us & some tools & for me, prayer as well.

      • April  February 22, 2018

        Yes, to some degree, I’m working on it from several angles. Thanks for asking =)

        • Donna  February 22, 2018

          to April, good to know that you have some tools for your healing. 🙂

  19. Munna  February 23, 2018

    Truly insightful and informative to read this article about delayed emotional response, very well put together. Keep up the good work Roland.

  20. Sara  March 15, 2018

    Really identify with this, school was awful as could not remember things as class room dynamics re triggered vme constantly, teaches would scould me for day dreaming and let me to focus, years later a therapist asked where I went in a session and this was first time I realised I was dissociated and this was conditioned since childhood, my current flaskbwcks vary from being a child again in vmy younger body and then as I am now as a bystander seeing my child self, when triggered and I’d too much I count backwards while at same time moving away from my own picture. Of the trauma which I see as swirl of energy, may not be best technique but does work tor for me


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