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Sunday, 17 April 2011 20:00

Dissociation: Personal Transition in a Chaotic World

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"It's enough," said the 64-year old.... "Something has changed. The world feels strange now. Even the way the clouds move isn't right." (Excerpted from an article on the 7.1-magnitude aftershock in northeastern Japan, USA Today, April 8, 2011.)

Dissociation: Personal Transition in a Chaotic World

Traumatic events set off a chain reaction of biological, emotional, psychological, interpersonal, and spiritual changes that can disrupt your entire sense of self and how you view things going forward. When your world is shaken and you no longer feel safe, you can lose your sense of identity. The resulting shifts in perspective and perception can cause a disintegration of your baseline ego.

Survivors of traumatic events say things like:
"I was so frightened, I stopped feeling. It was like I reached a point where I didn't care anymore if I lived or died."
"Once I got through this and accepted my own death, my fear went away. I was able to get through."
"It is odd; I would look at myself, look at my hand, and it was like it was no longer attached. Everything shifted from three dimensions to two; it is like colors disappeared, yet everything was intense. I can't really describe it; I just went numb. I became disconnected from my body."

Such shifts in perspective and dimensionality are a core component of dissociation, which tends to follow in the wake of absolute fear or panic. Permitting one to detach from emotion, it can be very adaptive. For instance, it can help soldiers to act as a team and follow orders. In Vietnam, many soldiers would recite a simple chant while doing horrible tasks: "Just another day, no big thing...." This helped to desensitize them, reinforce dissociation, and establish the numbness required for survival.

Dissociation also permits emergency room personnel to disengage from the horrors they see and do their jobs. ER workers who are “in touch with their emotions” may not be able to act as efficiently in a crisis as a focused, emotionally dissociated team. Optimally, rescuers need to perform first and process their emotions later.

Soldiers, healers, and survivors encounter problems if they cannot reattach to their bodies or emotions after the intensity diminishes. If they remain in a state of constant arousal, it negatively affects their sense of balance, communication, self-awareness, and connection to loved ones. Once your core is shaken, it is difficult to resume a "normal" perspective. Everything feels different. On one hand, things that upset others might not set you off. New crises are familiar, almost expected; they may even be welcomed or become "the new normal." Survivors often adapt well to overload. They feel comfortable, perhaps even comforted, within new arenas of challenge or intensity. This, in part, is why so many soldiers devastated by war would enlist again if offered the option. They get used to functioning well at the edge; it almost becomes addictive.

Paradoxically, little things can cause overreaction. A partner's complaint about a failure to clean the kitchen, for example, might result in a temper tantrum, a fit of righteous indignation, or a violent clash. The big things become little, and the little things become big. The new normal is numbness, punctuated by fits of rage or terror. In this "fifth dimension," everything is scrambled. You are numb and detached; nothing hurts. It's "just another day, same old thing...." Yet everything is different - even the clouds.

Dr. Jerry Boriskin is a Senior Fellow at The Meadows. He is an author, lecturer, and clinician with expertise in trauma, PTSD, and addictive disorders. Dr. Boriskin is a licensed psychologist and addiction specialist who recently resumed working with traumatized soldiers at the V.A. of Northern California. He is the author of "PTSD and Addiction: A Practical Guide for Clinicians and Counselors" and co-authored "At Wit's End: What Families Need to Know When A Loved One is Diagnosed with Addiction and Mental Illness."

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