PTSD Dissociation and How it Impacts Your Identity

PTSD Dissociation and How it Impacts Your Identity

PTSD Dissociation is a necessity that is born out of survival. Dissociation is put in place to protect the still functioning parts of yourself when you go through trauma.

Depression, for example, is one of the leading mental illnesses of our times, although only 10% of those affected actively seek help. I would say in most cases, depression is directly linked to PTSD Dissociation.

PTSD has been around for eons. It is not something new; however, there still seems to be a taboo, denial or sense that it is unacceptable around it. Both on the individual and the collective level. Admitting that you need help– on an emotional and mental level– is a big step to make. Making that first step and setting the intention to heal is the catalyst to the whole process of finding a sense of peace once more in oneself.

So why then is it so difficult to do?

PTSD Dissociation and Your Identity

When you go through PTSD you disconnect with a part of yourself. You give up a sense of integrity in order to survive in order to deal with the overwhelming surge that floods your body and mind. To be overwhelmed by an incidental or developmental trauma is to lose a sense of control and to be in a state of helpless vulnerability. That is the first step in disconnecting from your integral self. The emotions that follow as attempts to deal with this overwhelming force are anger, fear, sadness, grief, guilt, and shame, blame, self-reproach, and quite often a mixture of these.

PTSD disconnects you from having an integrated sense of self. It is the splitting of your identity, also called dissociation. On a corresponding physical and energetic level it is referred to as a trauma vortex in Somatic Experiencing and an energy cyst in Somato Emotional Release.

When a state of disconnection and PTSD dissociation persists, the disconnected state becomes an identity unto itself and thereby becomes very difficult to move out of and away from. The fear of reconnecting– by working through the dissociation of PTSD and addressing the overwhelming helplessness– also means dying of one’s “trauma- identity.” You tend to prefer staying with the familiarity of the known– even if it is painful and destructive– than face the unknown and potential healing.

Let me put forward an example by which to clarify this:

Dissociation in PTSD in Action

Carry’s parents split up when she was just two years old and she has, since then, lived with her mother. As her parents were not on good terms she hardly saw her dad who, by then, also happened to have moved far away. In her current life as an adult, she has had trouble maintaining steady personal relationships. She falls very easily in love and is prone to get attached. The loving and attachment come with a fair amount of possessiveness and jealousy out of a fear of losing that person, which is what tends to happen in the end. Carry is convinced that finding the perfect partner will solve her problems and sees most men as being uncommitted.

This is a classic example of Dissociation in PTSD regarding a developmental issue. Carry’s initial trauma of abandonment and loss fuels emotions of fear and attachment. In her attempt to fill up the gap formed by the trauma, she projects it outwardly in trying to find the perfect partner. However, the dynamics of the relationship are still based on a past traumatic tragedy, which sets her up for a reenactment of her initial trauma on an emotional level. Blaming men for being unreliable keeps her “trauma-identity” alive.

» Dive deeper into this topic by reading The Trauma Essential Series →

How does PTSD Dissociation show up for you? Leave your comments below.

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  • Bhaven says:

    A wonderful compact and clear informative article.Thank you!

  • Shar says:

    What if something so terrible happened that (as a victim), you saw the abuse happening to yourself from across the room – like it was something you saw on television – until one day years later, you saw something so horrible that reminded you of your own trauma and those old memories were suddenly in 3-D, up-close and personal every time you closed your eyes, and you continually relive it? What kind of un-dissociation is that? Because I would like to have that back.

    • Roland says:

      Hi Shar. Thanks for sharing. Often both parts are present after a traumatic experience. Some go through this from moment to moment others have a delayed response – like yourself. There is the freeze or dissociation part, which can be that you perceive what happens to you from the outside – like a movie. Then there is the flashbacks, overwhelm part where it is all and continuously real-time, as you mentioned in the end of your comment. Both are part and parcel of the trauma and rotate-reinforce each other. The way out is the way in – which is often to reach out for help, either group or private counseling.

  • Mardi says:

    Hello
    I’m curious if you have resources for partners of people with PTSD and complex trauma.
    My partner has been living with PTSD and complex trauma. It’s very challenging to be in partnership with him at times. He is currently exhausted by professional help which compounds our challenges, he seems to want to blame me for everything and he is isolating himself unfortunately. He is a wonderful human being but currently feels trapped by his stress and trauma self. I believe in healing and give him lots of space in love. I don’t want to give up but at times it’s hard to believe we can get through the challenging times.

    • Roland says:

      Hi Mardi. I don’t focus on couples specifically, but I am certain, if he is willing, that the articles here would help him. Perhaps you can suggest him one of the articles to read. There are also the trauma essentials, which go a little deeper into the various processes of PTSD and CPTSD.

  • Kj says:

    In therapy, my counselor is using emdr with me, but we have hit a bump in the road because I seem to dissociate quite a bit, which kind of dampers doing emdr. She is currently working on a new form of emdr with me that addresses how to do emdr with someone who dissociates.

    Thank you for a great article!

  • Donna Giovanni says:

    I think one of the ways that I disassociate is when people (family) are around me & I can’t really communicate what’s going on in my life so then I go into a locked up state (involuntarily) & feel all the emotions inside crowding together & hiding out b/c I can’t be who I really am at that time. Hours or a day may pass before I get released. What say you?

  • Vanessa says:

    This makes absolutely perfect sense. Thank you for sharing!

  • Lizzi says:

    Reflecting on my own trauma I have gone into my own head since a child. I literally loose time and exist only in my mind free from harm.
    I also tend to binge on alcohol to numb my feelings if they are triggered. Is this a form of dissacotiaon?
    I also literally shut down my feelings and become like a robot where I am getting on with everyday life but with no feeling. This can be very upsetting to other people as I am very cold.
    Is this what you mean Ronald or am I getting this wrong.
    Brilliant article x

  • Cheryl says:

    What would you call being stuck in childhood emotionally, feeling and behaving like a child? Is that dissociation. For years my development was arrested to feeling like a 13 year, in fact, I looked much younger than my age. Only since processing my trauma do I feel more adult-like.

    • Roland says:

      I would say that is a freeze response, which is indeed part of dissociation. “Only since processing my trauma do I feel more adult-like.” – Great!

  • Julia Castellazzi says:

    Having just started therapy I can now see signs of dissociation that go quite a bit further back into my life than I had realised and although my more obvious period of consistent trauma occurred over 30 years ago
    I can remember and now identify a very long period total dissociation which as I lived it felt as if I was constantly in shock.The sense of myself was completely shattered, I felt like pieces of shattered glass. I was numb yet had a constant feeling of horror, shock, distaste even nauseous, no sense of direction, lost, completely alone (I was in a city I didn’t know and I knew no-one). It is hard to describe the mixture of feelings because I couldn’t distinguish them. I had a constant “background of anguish and a big black ball of negative emotions” I didn’t eat very often because It didn’t come into my mind. I could not sleep other than eventual exhaustion. My brain seemed dead but I lived very much in the second and just enough to survive.I was in total isolation…. I had been quite a sociable person and I didn’t recognise myself in many ways but at that point I wasn’t really bothered… I just tried to survive. I knew my name and details of myself but I can remember lying in bed and some thoughts came through to me as I was trying to make some sense of my situation and all I could think of we’re fragments of my recent past but at least they gave me a sense of “reality” because I realised they were facts and I could identify with them as they were part of me and my life….unlike my present situation at that time.. A very very difficult long period that, with time became easier, thankfully.

  • Lizzie says:

    I wonder Roland, if one has suffered from developmental trauma and then had it compounded by an innate sensitivity to trauma and then further compounded by repeated truama in various guises throughout life in to ones 40s including repeated attachment trauma from the pattern set in childhood, physical trauma from ill health, multiple car accidents, threat of death through misdiagnosis of terminal illness, repeated loss in career, independence, friendships, family, pregnancies.. repeated loss of trust, prolonged chronic trauma from environment with helplessness to change it, years of stress from an unhealthy environment which meant broken sleep almost nightly for 5 years, no real experience of security or independence to give enough belief that it can be different, that you can be loved, that people can be trusted, learning who can be trusted, having boundaries enough to get close to someone yet protect yourself until you can be sure they are trustworthy without getting too attached.. What does one do if they are in this situation yet have worked incredibly hard to heal? It’s not a case of not reaching out. It’s a case of, ‘How am I still in this position?’ The loss of meaningful life is a devastating reality to come to terms with looking back on what is likely decades of dissociation. If I am still engaged and determined to heal, is there hope for someone with this many layers of multiple trauma developmental, attachment, multiple causes of PTSD and CPTSD?

    I know you say it’s harder when the traumas are addressed late. But surely the determination can make a difference?

    It’s just for those who have never been given the secure attachment and who have been unfortunate enough to receive the opposite multiple times, the believe is reinforced that it cannot be different and trying to believe and reach the state of security is very hard to do without a lived experience of it.

    Can you make suggestions on this for someone who is exhausted and a little in crisis at this particular moment, but who is still ferociously determined? Thank you for all you do on this site and with your open resources.

    • Roland says:

      Hi Lizzie. There are many aspects that form part of healing. When survival patterns have been put in place at a young age, it generally takes more time to work through the emotional charge and creating new neural pathways and perspectives because of an absence of healthy attachment or healthy ways of coping. Also, I think it is important to move away from wanting to get rid of certain emotional patterns and instead focus on regulating and minimizing the effect of those patterns through resilience and intervention. The getting rid of response– and even being too determined to heal– can even prevent healing because it might come out of a wanting to dissociate opposed to getting closer to where the pain is and contain it in order to process, release or transform.

    • Donna Giovanni says:

      My heart really goes out to you…your description sounded a lot like me in years past. I’ve been healed of a lot but still do have times when I have the locked up experience (freeze). For me, I have to say that continued prayers for my healing, reading appropriate books, not only about CPTSD, doing EFT almost daily, watching animal programs b/c I love animals, more prayers, etc. has certainly helped all along the way. Blessings on you & I do believe you will make progress yet in your life…look for it this year. 🙂

      • Lizzie says:

        Thanks Donna, it’s just so sad when lack of early intervention means that we are repeatedly retraumatised. Glad to hear you have improved. It’s obviously inspiring to those of us still struggling. Am feeling a lot better today and have been working with the process of observing the feeling, sitting with them then out and in and flowing with them. The biggest transition is realising how much ‘healing’ was part of my dissociation. It’s such a useful bit of enlightenment.

        • Donna Giovanni says:

          It’s so good to hear from you & I am glad you were inspired. Can you explain more about how the dissociation is part of our healing or maybe you can refer me to one of Roland’s comments. Thanks! I am going thru the winter feelings which are more sleep, but I need more sleep & just kinda feeling on the low scale but I KNOW it’s the winter thing so I don’t worry about it or think that anything is out of kilter. Blessings on you & your day today!

          • Lizzie says:

            Hi Donna, it’s in quotation marks because I’m saying that my leaping into healing was a form of dissociation. I was running away from the intense emotions by trying to perpetually ‘fix’ them which is an evasion in the long run. Have a look at the link to the video in my previous comment for the three chaps chatting about it. Also, I have sunbeds from time to time in the winter, that perks me right up! 🙂

  • Lizzie says:

    Hi Roland, thank you for your considered response… I think I was just coming to a similar conclusion, I’d just found your following video https://rolandbal.com/the-effort-of-overcoming-ptsd-and-complex-trauma-and-how-it-can-back-fire/

    It’s hit me like a ton of bricks, the realisation of a lifetime of trying to heal and it potentially being part of the dissociation. How strange. And yet a great relief and something to work with, most gently, from hereon in. Something to assimilate and something to let go of. Really incredible when something clicks like that. I believe I still need to do some work but this has given me an insight that it’s not me as a whole that needs the work but certain behaviours and responses. Also an insight in to how my healing quest has been a massive part of my identity, a trauma identity and something I don’t need to identify with and fuel anymore, I just need to stop and see what I’m avoiding by constantly trying to ‘over-come’. Thank you so much, one of the best sites I’ve seen for simple and sensitive recognition of this all too prevalent social health problem. Thank you.

    • Donna Giovanni says:

      Thank you Lizzie for your comment & the reminder to watch the video, which I did. I enjoyed hearing from all three of the guys. I can see that many times I have had to make a decision to overcome my resistance to move forward. Also, I remember having lots of times (only God knows) when I, too, was exerting too much pressure on myself to get better until I realized that that was not helpful…then I eased up. I am more balanced now, enjoying my grandchildren especially & my children, feeling loved & giving love, which I believe is a real healer. Blessing you, Donna

  • Scott says:

    I go into the grocery store, at some point during this time everything on the shelves look the same and I can’t find anything. The wind blowing in the halls of my mind is unreal. My ears ring and I get lost. I have to call my wife just to get my bearings. I have to just take off walking and completely forget about the shopping. I guess it’s the light and noise of so many people that triggers. I just don’t know. Ron your work here is phenomenal.

  • Donna Giovanni says:

    It’s so good to hear from you & I am glad you were inspired. Can you explain more about how the dissociation is part of our healing or maybe you can refer me to one of Roland’s comments. Thanks! I am going thru the winter feelings which are more sleep, but I need more sleep & just kinda feeling on the low scale but I KNOW it’s the winter thing so I don’t worry about it or think that anything is out of kilter. Blessings on you & your day today!

  • Harmen says:

    Thanks Roland for writing these articles! They are really insightfull and helping.

  • Dawn says:

    Dissociation shows up for me like this; I am in a dream like state all of the time. When life gets a little more stressful for me (like if I’m in a busy crowd) it gets much worse. It has been like this since I was 16 years old, I am now 37. I am working with a good counsellor and am reading many articles about abuse and trauma. It has been very enlightening and validating but so far there has been no change with the dissociation. Is this something that will not ever change?

  • Ayesha says:

    I can relate to the above mentioned subject that you used as an example. It’s so difficult to trust and when someone disappointed me, at the time I took it so hard but that is more manageable these days. I have yet to seek assistance and yes it’s hard for some people ( like myself ) to go for help. I personally always focus on helping others and that keeps me from working on myself. Perhaps I use it as an excuse. Down playing the importance. It is something I realised I did and probably still do.

    I would really like to thank you for taking the time to attempt to help people like ‘myself who mostly suffer in silence as apposed to burdening others ‘. We are really grateful!
    Thank you for your time and efforts.

  • Casey says:

    Question..what would the cutoff age be approx in regards to it stemming from a developmental issue? Is it just younger development or does it stream through the teenage years as well?? I was abused in many different ways between the age of I think fourteen to sixteen and no matter how hard I try to get on with my life and not let it affect me (no I haven’t had any professional help, I tried to seek counselling once but I got there and couldn’t get the words out of my mouth) it always comes back to haunt me. Sometimes I’m lucky and seem to go through periods of reprieve and it seems like I’ve finally made it through and then bam conflict happens or someone says something that triggers something inside of me and then next thing I know it starts spiralling in my head and it seems the older I get the worse it is becoming I also feel like the longer the times are for the reprieve the more intense and dabilitating it is when everything floods back in, depending on the situation and how I’m feeling that day sometimes I can allow myself some time and it doesn’t sink into a horrible pit of darkness, then once I feel I have had sufficient time allowing these negative thoughts and feelings to just be I get back up dust myself off and continue on as best I can, then over the next few days I’ve begun to realise I just try to sweep it under the carpet and forget it happened. Then I have the times when it seems to hit me like a tonne of bricks and I can’t function at all I curl up into the smallest ball I can, I can’t speak, I struggle to move and I lose myself. it seems like I am invaded and taken over by some other part of me that just reruns the most painful memories of my life, my worst fears, feelings of worthlessness helplessness despair wanting to give up and how much of a screw up I feel like I am because I’m good for nothing consume me and no matter how hard I inwardly try to claw my way back out I can’t, then all of a sudden it slowly starts to ease and drift away… I desperately don’t want this to affect my children or my partner but I’m beginning to realise i have to reach out and get help because it is starting to become unbearable to deal with. But I’m scared and don’t know where to start or Wich direction to turn, and if I do am I going to have the strength to deal with facing the feelings and experiences without completely shutting down.

    My partner also has commented that at times in certain situations, it’s like trying to deal with a child and I’m wondering if maybe sometimes I might return to a childlike state when I feel threatened or vulnerable