Research has pointed towards a correlation between childhood sexual abuse (CSA), or other childhood trauma, and dissociative patterns.1 This means, while not every survivor of CSA will experience dissociation, there is an increased risk of developing this condition within the population of CSA survivors.
Dissociation and dissociative patterns are mental health conditions in which an individual experiences a detachment from themselves, their memories, their thoughts, or their identity. 1,2
Disassociation and trauma
Some research has shown that the development and intensity of dissociation and dissociative disorders in adulthood may be correlated to the intensity of the trauma or length of time a trauma was endured. For example, individuals who repeatedly experienced CSA may be at a higher risk of developing dissociative disorders than individuals who have experienced an isolated incident of abuse, however, any survivor of CSA may develop dissociation or dissociative patterns.3
Dissociation can occur in mild forms on a daily basis to otherwise healthy individuals. Mild dissociation can occur when an individual is daydreaming, getting lost in a book, and other similar experiences. However, individuals with more severe dissociation may feel disconnected from themselves, feel as though they’re watching their life from afar, have no control over their thoughts or actions, and may feel no emotion when thinking about a severe past trauma. Some of these individuals may even repress or forget memories of a past trauma, as if it never happened to them at all.2-4 While some of these experiences may be at their most frequent right after or shortly after a trauma, they also have the potential to follow an individual for a much longer time. Individuals using these coping mechanisms throughout the rest of their life may have issues fending off future danger, experiencing emotions, and maintaining healthy sexual lives.2
There are several hallmarks of a potential dissociative disorder
An individual struggling with dissociation or a dissociative disorder may only experience one of the following or may experience multiple. Each individual’s experience with dissociation can be varied.
- Depersonalization: The sense of not being in control of, or not being connected to, one’s body. Individuals struggling with depersonalization may not recognize their reflection as their own.
- Derealization: Feeling like the world is not real or is foggy.
- Dissociative Amnesia: The forgetting of a major event, such as a childhood trauma. Entire blocks of time surrounding a trauma may be forgotten or an individual may “zone out” and forget things happening in real-time.
- Identity confusion and alteration: When an individual forgets who they are or takes on a new personality unlike themselves. The idea of identity alteration, or taking on a new personality, is sometimes classified as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) or Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD).
Although dissociation risk is correlated with trauma, it can develop in any individual, regardless of age, gender, the type of traumatic event experience, and how long ago the trauma occurred. Dissociation and its symptoms can be manageable with additional support. Common management strategies for dissociation and dissociative disorders include individual or group therapy, psychotherapy, and counseling. If you or someone you know is showing signs of severe dissociation, it is important to seek help immediately.
- Putnam, F. W. (2003). Ten-year research update review: Child sexual abuse. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 42(3), 269-278.
- Hall M, Hall J. The long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse: Counseling implications. American Counseling Association.https://www.counseling.org/docs/disaster-and-trauma_sexual-abuse/long-term-effects-of-childhood-sexual-abuse.pdf?sfvrsn=2. Published 2011. Accessed December 27, 2017.
- Dissociation and Dissociative Disorders. Mental Health America. http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/dissociation-and-dissociative-disorders. Accessed December 27, 2017.
- Dissociations FAQ’s. International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. http://www.isst-d.org/default.asp?contentID=76#diss. Accessed December 27, 2017.