Psychological Impacts of Trauma FAQ
What is dissociation?
Dissociation means the separation of things that were, or usually are, together (e.g., associated.) In their minds, people usually remember a whole event, including sights, sounds, feelings, and meaning. When dissociation occurs, the remembered event may be devoid of meaning or feelings, which are separated and stored in another part of the mind. In other words, the different parts of the memory are stored and recalled separately, not as a congruent whole.
Strictly speaking, dissociation is a mental process, a way of recording and storing information. It is one of the mind’s ways of operating. Some information may be dissociated, while other information is stored as a whole.
Sometimes you hear “So-and-so is dissociated.” This is shorthand for saying that their mind uses dissociation. A person is always a whole person, regardless of how their mind works. Nobody stores their feet in one place, their nose in another, and their mind someplace else, even though some days it may feel that way.
What causes dissociation?
Dissociation occurs when a person experiences extreme stress or stimulation. Under these conditions, life is experienced differently and the memory of an event is stored differently in the mind. Research suggests that the brain operates differently when experiencing or recalling stressful and non-stressful events.
Here is a personal example that many people may be able to relate to. I remember skidding badly on an icy street. As the car skidded, colors seemed brighter and time passed very slowly, I was enveloped in total silence even though the radio was on and I experienced no thoughts or feelings whatsoever. I was aware of only the visual part of this experience as it happened. Later, the emotions hit. I was so frightened that my heart pounded and my legs shook, but I could no longer clearly remember the visual memory.
When a child is severely abused, extreme stress occurs repeatedly. Many events are experienced in a state of shock, stored in a dissociative state, and recalled in fragments.
If a child dissociates extensively, even memories of less stressful events can be dissociated. Perhaps the child is still in shock, perhaps the child’s sensitivity to stress is raised, perhaps the mind comes to store all material in a familiar way.
There are innate temperamental differences between people. Some people probably dissociate more easily than others or require less stress to change over into dissociative mode.
What is a flashback?
A flashback is a dissociated memory that returns to consciousness. It can be a smell, a taste, a sound, an image, an emotion, or all these things together. It can last a moment or linger on for weeks.
People describe smelling alcohol or perfume when none is present, hearing a phrase over and over again in their heads, feeling panic or dread for no logical reason, or seeing images, like snapshots or movies behind their eyes. All these are fragmented memories rising up into consciousness. They can be extremely vivid and can appear to be happening in the present. The more fragments come together at the same time, the more intense the flashback.
Flashbacks are terrifying if you don’t know what they are and if you don’t realize they will eventually stop. Experiencing flashbacks doesn’t mean you are going crazy - it means that you are at a point in your life when you are able to deal with things that you couldn’t cope with earlier. They tend to lose their intensity when you have assembled the fragments into a coherent memory, talked about it, cried about it, and absorbed the memory into your life.
What is multiplicity?
In some children, the mental fragments are organized or arranged into “personalities” which seem to have a history and a life of their own. Often the personalities are so separated that they are not aware of each other’s existence. This is called an amnesic barrier.
Imagine a child with a mother who is loving one moment and cruel and sadistic the next. The child will obviously react differently, depending on the mother’s mood. The child will learn different ways of responding to the “good” mother and the “bad” mother. All children do this to some extent because no adult is perfectly consistent.
Now imagine that the child is so stressed out that memories of interactions with the “bad” mother are dissociated. When the “good” mother is around, the child has no knowledge of the “bad” mother, or of the “bad” child. But as soon as the mother turns nasty, the child switches, and knows exactly how to react. That’s multiplicity.
What is an alter?
An alter is one personality of a person with multiplicity. The personality who is “out” most of the time is often called the host personality, and personalities seen less frequently are called alternative personalities, or alters. Some people have only one or two alters, others have hundreds or even thousands.
Some people with multiplicity experience each alter as a separate person. Others experience them as different from their usual self, but not as different people. Multiplicity is not exactly the same from person to person and each person’s experience of their inner reality is unique.
Often alters have names, have a distinct age, and have specific jobs to do. One may be in charge of feeling anger, another of going to school or work, another may be the one who decides which alter gets to be in control of the body at any given time. Alters may have a different gender from the body or a different sexual orientation from the host. There may even be alters who are animals, objects, or abstract ideas. Sometimes people have alters who are experienced as being dead or immortal.
The formation of alters is a natural psychological process, given extreme early childhood stress. Abusive adults who are aware of the process can manipulate and train the emerging personalities to their own ends. Some survivors of ritual abuse have alters trained by their abusers to do certain tasks and to behave in ways desired by the abusers. And some survivors have alters organized in elaborate patterns designed by the perpetrators, with strict rules about how the alters communicate with each other.
What is co-consciousness?
When two or more alters are aware of what is happening in the present, they are said to be co-conscious. When two or more alters share control over the body’s actions, they are said to be co-present.
A person may have alters who are unaware of each other, alters who are always mutually aware of each other, and alters who are aware at some times but not others. Alters who are aware of the presence of other personalities know they are multiple, while alters who aren’t in contact with other personalities firmly believe they are “the only one there.” An alter may even be multiple.
What is integration?
Integration is used to describe two different processes. One is the process of alters learning to communicate and cooperate and sharing their memories with each other. The other sense of the word is the actual merging (or fusion) of two or more alters to become one. Nothing is lost: all memories, talents, and personality traits are preserved, but organized in a different way. One survivor described integration as “falling in love with myself” rather than as the death of part of herself, as she had feared.
Some people do not fuse and find that their lives are perfectly satisfactory as long as their alters are communicating well. Others fuse partially, reducing the number of alters. Most people with many alters do this in stages, allowing for time for the system to stabilize and get used to the new internal organization. Some people “become one” for a period of time and then either new alters are formed to deal with new life circumstances or the former alters split off and become themselves again.
Living with being multiple is an on-going process, just like living with not being multiple is. There are choices to be made, decisions that make life easier or harder. There is no hard and fast rule about what the “best” way is - each person’s path in life is unique.