The Role of Dissociation in Trauma

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All human beings dissociate; dissociation is adaptive. Dissociation is just one of many effects of trauma. Dissociation is a disruption of the normal integration of experience. When a person uses dissociation as a defense mechanism, it is how a person organizes incoming information about life. This term is often misunderstood — if you break down the word and its prefix, it is: Dis (apart, or away from) Sociation (meaning to associate or to be connected.)

Dissociation is when you divide attention into two or more streams of consciousness. It is ‘highway hypnosis’ on a long trip surprised that we went through two tunnels and 40 miles as we see the sign for our exit coming up. While we are glad that we are almost at our destination, it can be a bit unnerving that we don’t remember the trip in any detail. Dissociation compartmentalizes information and affect (emotion).

When a child experiences traumatic events that are unsurvivable, the child will learn how to organize the sensory information from these events by NOT having the events stored in the mind together to hold the memory intact as well as NOT having overwhelming emotions of the events connected to the child him/herself.

Another dissociative function or ability is to alter identity or create distance from self. (Putnam, 1999) A child surviving recurrent traumatic events will create another self to separate from what is unsurvivable and from what does not make sense. When a little girl has a bad daddy that hurts her at night she will create a little girl that “knows” about the bad happening and she will create another little girl that goes to school and does “not know”. The little girl that does “not know” can learn her ABC’s and interact with the other children at school. This use of dissociation by creating distance from self by creating “another” protects the child. When a child endures traumatic events, a God-given gift of dissociation helps the child survive what is unsurvivable.

However, God never intended us to live out of defense mechanisms, which are given to us to help us survive, but a defense mechanism is not sustainable to live for an entire life. The child’s solution of dissociation eventually becomes an adult’s problem. And that problem is what originally helped a child survive to keep a child’s mind safe no longer works. Eventually, a child becomes an adult and needs to learn how to grieve losses, understand emotions, develop emotional regulating skills, and live out of their heart — not a defense mechanism.


  • Significant memory loss of specific times, people, and events
  • Out-of-body experiences, such as feeling as though you are watching a movie of yourself
  • Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide
  • A sense of detachment from your emotions, or emotional numbness
  • A lack of a sense of self-identity

Dissociative disorders usually develop as a way of dealing with trauma. Dissociative disorders most often form in children exposed to long-term physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Natural disasters and combat can also cause dissociative disorders.

A good counselor will know how to counsel an adult who has lived with trauma and has not known or learned how to identify a loss, much less grieve those losses. When this happens, many times the language of the heart creates a defensive system brought about by living in constant states of emergency. This often looks like behavioral issues in adults rather than trauma.

This may mean the individual acted out sexually, had addictions, and suffered relationship ruptures due to anger or shame-based behaviors of self-loathing or self-hatred. Because trauma causes the brain to be rewired, often the manifestation of such symptoms may look like a conscience choice to “sin” when it is not. They themselves may not even hear the cry of their own heart. What it is, is the language of the survivor’s heart asking for help — by pointing to the area of wounding.  This type of love heals the heart and allows a person to begin the journey out of fear and into a brand-new world of love.

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