Dissociation and Negotiation in PTSD, CPTSD, and Complex Trauma

Dissociation is a safety mechanism which helps you to survive when fight, flight, or pleasing aren’t possible anymore. Dissociation is set in motion to ensure your survival through physiological immobilization and psychological disconnection.

When animals come out of a freeze or dissociation response, they shake out the stress that has accumulated in their nervous system.

Unfortunately, with us humans, to undo a freeze/dissociation response is often a bit more complicated.

PTSD, Dissociation and the Freeze Response

The reason that it is more difficult for us humans likely is because abuse, neglect, or an abusive environment may have continued for an extended period and hence the possibility to discharge traumatic stress wasn’t available.

Dissociation is a safety mechanism which helps you to survive when fight, flight, or pleasing aren’t possible anymore.

Secondly, our ability to think and reason can perpetuate a dissociative state indefinitely.

Thinking brings in judgment towards ourselves or towards others, and thus the traumatic energy gets channeled into guilt, blame, self-reproach, shame, embarrassment, comparison, self-pity, jealousy, pride, fault finding, self-righteousness, regret, or distrust.

Thinking excessively prevents you from connecting to the body-- and this forms part of dissociation. When you are overwhelmed by emotion, you disconnect from the body. Your energy moves upward into the chest resulting in shallow breathing, and into the head, which results in excessive thinking.

Dissociation and Coming Back into the Body

Coming back into the body and meeting the frozen high energy charge in the nervous system is where your potential for healing lies.

There are a variety of difficulties regarding coming back into the body, and this mostly is because your survival is invested in the dissociated state.

To come back to the body will ring all of your alarm bells, as you will have to meet the pain, the fight, flight, and please response and their associated emotional states of anger, anxiety, despair, hopelessness, helplessness, dishonored vulnerability, and overwhelming grief.

You have to go extremely carefully into working with and reversing dissociation. You will have to negotiate that space between connection and dissociation.

Working through trauma can often feel like navigating a minefield.

Negotiating Dissociation to Heal PTSD, CPTSD, and Complex Trauma

First of all, negotiating dissociation has to start by your becoming aware of the dissociated state and by being able to differentiate between the necessity of it in the past for survival, and how it is working against you right now and impacting your health.

When that awareness is present, and there is a willingness to work on it, regardless of the resistances that will surface, only then can any progress realistically be made.

What reversing and negotiating dissociation entails is for you to start feeling below the level of dissociation into the sensations and emotions that made you dissociate.

You will need to allow a temporary giving up of control to enable you to move through the dissociated state. This is where the hard part comes in as doing so will make you feel vulnerable and possibly overwhelmed.

Working Through Dissociation

You must, therefore, carefully move into the feelings that are beneath or within the dissociated state. When you get too activated, you need to be able to manage that activation. And, you do this by not going any further into exploring the activation and its accompanying emotions.

It is through the “holding” of your emotional activation that you create more resilience. Slowly on, you will start to contain the whole of your wound and process the emotional residue within.

Reversing and negotiating dissociation is a process. You will find that you will have to move back and forth between connecting and disconnecting repeatedly until you can feel more of yourself and can successfully manage your boundaries. Up to that point, your trauma-informed therapist is providing that management of what you can contain and hold, and when to temporarily break off the process and disconnect from what you have been working on.

How is dissociation for you? Leave your comments below.

  • Caroline says:

    I’ve had a lot of frustration in therapy. In reading this, I wonder if maybe part of the issue is that while my therapist is well informed, kind, compassionate and well intentioned, they are also very passive. I feel like I run the show most of the time, and that I’m either flooding myself or just in my cognitive brain. I don’t feel like I get the guidance I need to oscillate between being in the material and not in the material. I know this person isn’t like this with everyone, so I wonder if it is just our personalities maybe don’t mesh? Not feeling like I’m making progress.

    • Roland says:

      Hi Caroline. See perhaps if you can address this with your therapist. If that doesn’t work you might have to look somewhere else. Sometimes a certain person only needs to help you on a part of your journey and someone else might be better fitted now.

  • Gina says:

    Excellent piece. I identfied with much of it. Healing from trauma is hard work. Learning how to tap those emotions for a certain amount of time and then let them rest is a journey itself. Grieving, healing, suffering – I know it well after 26 years of CBT and 2 years of EMDR. The darnest thing is, I’m still not done… ah, what is the way? I’m still stuck on boundaries. Wwe all know where that gets us. In a hand basket.

    • Roland says:

      Keep moving forward Gina. It is indeed hard work with ups and downs.

    • Ruan says:

      Hi Gina, that is a long time to live with trauma. You have probably grown much in the process but I can imagine you must be so tired of it. I have had a similar journey, possibly a less constructive one. In my case there has been so many other complications. You might have looked at all of these, but if not you could give them some consideration as they might help: IFS (Internal Family Systems therapy), Heavy metal toxicity (starting with a hair test), and the spiritual journey, as per Kim Michaels. All the best.

      • Gina says:

        Ruan, Thank you for the information and the note. I am currently really struggling. I ran into a very carismatic narcissist and he ravished my life. I am just completely at odds as to what to do next. Have a new doc set up for April, but that’s a ways away. I even lost my car. Please send prayers if you pray and positive healing energy my way – I will do the same for you. I’m just wondering when does this stuff ever end?

  • Therese says:

    Roland , you have summed up ‘The Process’ so beautifully. It is an act of faith in your deepest self , who becomes the ladder and encouraging echo in the well as you go deeper down into a darkness that holds all your secrets …far away from the familiarity of your habitual responses/adaptations to stressful triggers. It never lets go of the hope you will make it. Only someone who truly knows the pitfalls and footholds can guide another into and down the well. It does not come from a cognitive place but a visceral one that then feeds your cognition in a whole new way. You have to have been there to know the route . I had to learn this myself because my well sang for me to enter it, as it had been holding something far beyond the ugliness of the pain in the cold rank odours of loathing and disgust. It took far too many years but what you unearth is beyond words…it becomes embedded into your flesh in a new way. Roland your work is so real and refreshing. You are part of the ladder. Thank you for the respect you give to this work.

  • Cheryl says:

    Hi Roland. I just purchased your book set the other day. In which book do you go into more detail about the topic of dissociation? It is my main long-standing problem.

  • Hele says:

    Ahhh! So that is why my T will occasionally transition into cracking a joke, (sometimes towards the end of a session) She has the weirdest sense of humor, but she makes me laugh. I guess this serves as a way to oscillate between awareness of feelings in the body (not going too deep, not becoming too overwhelmed, then bringing me back to the present. The dissociation is more infrequent, but so are the child parts. I rather miss those parts of me, but I suppose this is the healing process at work?

  • Joy Clement says:

    I need more information. Although eloquently written, this piece is like an iceberg in the ocean.

  • Adele says:

    For me dissociation is a dizzy & disoriented feeling where I feel more distant from my senses, like I’m down a tunnel. I used to be scared of the sensation but now I understand it more I merely dislike it & know how to get out of it. My therapist is often taking me through exercises to reconnect me with my body & also often reflects back to me when I’m feeling overwhelmed & gently reminding me that diving right in might not be what I need at that moment. I remember after my breakdown I couldn’t even look at it for months then it felt like I could only peek at it & eventually I’ve been able to sit more fully with it & reframe the experience. Thanks for this article, it’s great to have more of an understanding of what my therapist is doing & be reminded of how far I’ve come on this healing journey

  • alun myles cochrane says:

    It’s gonna take a hell of a massive effort to fix my dissociation

  • Shaheen says:

    Conscious dissociation to re-associate with self. Unless ready taking away defense make one more vulnerable. Being with is important.

  • Mark says:

    I know one shouldn’t look back on the past but I get angry that I was never correctly diagnosed in my youth. I always thought I was different – not being able to feel emotion and the chronic and severe feelings of unreality. Fifty years later I look back and amazed at how I survived and indeed being a champion sportsperson, having done very well academically, reaching a high level job, married and having a child. Sadly and shamefully – always in a dissociative state. I am scared about coming out of a dissociative state and what it means for the life choices I made.

  • Peter says:

    I just don’t feel like I’m moving back and forth between anything. It’s so strange and debilitating. There are no strong emotions, just a lot of energy activation. I’ve felt anxious, fearful, panicky in the past, so I’m very familiar with those sensations. This is not like like that, it’s just like a huge build-up of energy which has nowhere to go, and causes my body to contract all day and night.

    I’m not able to calm this response down, no matter what I do, and I’ve been told conflicting things from therapists in the past, so I’m very lost. I’m also very short on money as I’ve spent all my savings on therapists. I’m willing to buy some of your materials if you think they can help my particular situation, but I’d need some assurance.

    I’ve read a lot around this subject, so I’m not new to the more popular theories, but I haven’t yet found anything which pertains to my current state.

    My issue is –

    always on edge, left psoas and back muscles always activated, performing an involuntary contraction which is often very strong, and emanates dense buzzing around my body.

    Mind very overactive, never sure if I’m doing the right thing.

    Not able to calm down, to reach a ‘rest and digest’ state, ever.

    Have tried grounding, breathing, orienting, touch, craniosacral, resting the mind, focusing on sensations, distracting, squeezing and pushing. Nothing works to relax my body, and it’s truly bewildering as I just don’t know what I should be doing.

    If there are any resources out there I’d be very grateful.

    Thank you

    • Roland says:

      Hi Peter, it sounds like part of you is in a freeze-shutdown response with the activation side just bubbling right under the surface of that freeze-shutdown response. In my resources, I talk a lot about the various stages of dissociation including busy thoughts, emotional activation, and the freeze-shutdown response that often goes with chronic pain when it goes on for a longer period of time. I would suggest going through more of the articles that are in the blog section. If you are willing to go a bit deeper, I would suggest The Trauma Care Package. Hope this helps!

      • Peter says:

        Hi Roland,

        Thank you for getting back to me, I really appreciate it. I’m working my way through your articles, and am considering going a bit deeper as I’m finding your explanations to be some of the best I’ve found, especially regarding overthinking, which is my default setting. I even find myself overthinking about overthinking. A new obsessive thought will always sneak in through the back door.

        At present I’m just playing around with pausing, and observing my thoughts, trying to allow the mind to rest a bit, maybe creating some space for something different to move through.

        Thanks again. Can I just ask if you anticipate any space in your therapy practice any time soon?


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