PTSD and Dissociation: What You Need to Know
In my work with PTSD clients, we bump up a lot against "I feel so disconnected from myself!" and "I feel so very separate from the world!" In my own PTSD experience, I too felt a big break between my experience of reality and my connection to myself and my body.
In my PTSD recovery memoir, Before the World Intruded, I describe it this way:
More and more often I was aware that there was my body and then there was me. I felt the real me existed outside of my body, a little to the right of my head.
That sense of complete disconnection from yourself and/or the world can make you feel even more crazy than you already do. What's really going on?
How Dissociation Affects A Person with PTSD
In this video, I explain what dissociation is, plus how it affects someone with PTSD.
If this video resonates with you and you recognize this feeling, take heart: you're not crazy! You're just struggling with a very normal part of the PTSD experience.
Rosenthal, M. (2012, August 31). PTSD and Dissociation: What You Need to Know, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, September 24 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2012/08/ptsd-and-dissociation-what-you-need-to-know
Author: Michele Rosenthal
It's very difficult because our brains try to reduce access to the thoughts and memories that are overwhelmingly painful, terrifying, or utterly repulsive to us. Our brains produce fewer neurotransmitters to facilitate not remembering, but then we have difficulties with organising ourselves, time perception, and remembering the things we need to and want to.
I have great respect for PTSD as a trauma-survival mechanism. It keeps adults from being overwhelmed with despair and pushed to suicide as a way of escaping the excruciating emotional and mental pain, but long term it's self-limiting. The person is unable to manage intellectual complexities that they were formerly very capable of.
I think that being able to sleep, having proper sleep cycles, and being able to feel safe are the starting points for recovery. These are difficult to achieve when your financial situation has collapsed, and your social support similarly has disintegrated. That becomes a new trigger of shame and stress.
I have flashbacks everyday. I have nightmares everynight. I rock all the time. I get lost in time.
Thank you so much, Michele. My words feel so insufficient to express how much your video touches my heart and encourages me. I've spend my whole life blind to the roots of my suffering. I always assumed I was born bad or defective. I even have a degree in psychology. It's much easier to see it in others, but I didn't realize I could be so blind to myself. Now I know it was my subconscious protecting me to help me survive. That I was fighting a war that was long over. That I projected so much of my rage of being hurt by others long gone...that I turned on my own loved ones. I became a monster to the very people who wanted to help me. My lashing out was always followed by guilt and despair with affirmation that I really was horrible. Eventually, I developed physical disease and autoimmune illnesses. I ended up with a post-doc intern clinical psychologist for help with adult ADD; clueless to what was really destroying me and my loved ones. Low and behold, he is trained in trauma, and over the last year he has gently guided me on the toughest, most necessary journey ever. At times the pain that comes through is crippling, but as any good therapist would, he allows me to go at my own pace. In our very first session, I warned him that I would lie to him, because it's so hard to say things I don't think others want to hear. I'm glad I did, because now I can say, "well, I've been lying to you about "x"...it was really more like this". It helped ease my natural tendency to just keep appearances. We have lots of work to do. It's messy at times but mostly rewarding to finally integrate and meet my true self. Thank you for believing in all of us.
Wow, I am so pleased to have stumbled across this website. My current boyfriend had told me that it was in his opinion that I am suffering from PTSD as a result of just having come out of an abusive relationship prior to him and really a life of experiencing trauma. I've been looking into the symptoms of PTSD now and realize that all of this feeling isolated, that I can't relate to anyone, these feelings of hopelessness aren't me, they aren't who I am or make me, they are results of my experiences and I hope this realization will help me to recovery. When I was just sixteen years old, I was terrified for my sanity because I was experiencing dissociation. I couldn't put myself back into the world, I wanted to close my eyes and wake up from this nightmare where there seemed to be a film between me and the rest of the world and other people. I remember going out for coffee with a friend and being outside of my body and the situation. I was terrified. I'm glad that I finally know what it was and that others have experienced it too. Thank you.
Dissociation is a HUGE problem for me since I've had PTSD. I can't find any help through therapy. Talk therapy makes my symptoms worse, and it's all that's available when I reach out for help. I had EMDR soon after the trauma and it helped with things like flashbacks and panic attacks. Now, 8 years later, I never feel safe and I haven't for a single moment since this happened. I didn't think it could get worse but it continues to do so, year after year. While I've never planned or thought of suicide, what is happening is more and more damaging dissociation. If I try to make myself stay present, I get so sleepy I feel drugged. If I tell doctors or therapists, they seem to not believe me. No one understands I have been in crisis for this long - 9 yrs now. WHAT CAN I DO?
Im not a professional. Looking for answers myself actually. ive been dealing with this for five years going nuts. CBT/CPT treatment 2 months ago,. 2 weeks ago i had completely lost faith in my counselors and the meds. Panic attacks, paranoia, fogginess, rage etc just amplified all of a sudden - as soon as i started trying to remember/address my past that i had been avoiding. I almost didnt go back to clinic, almost gave up. Today im anxious and feel like theres some question out there i need to answer. Amazingly though the depression isnt nearly as bad and the other symptoms are still present, but, and i cant explain why exactly, but i swear its like they actually exit my body and head - i think its because those counselors i was so disappointed and angry with were actually right all along. Every fiber in my body told me they were wrong wrong wrong, but all of a sudden its like some of my "triggers" lost their potency. I hope you found a pro to answer your question. But i know how you feel, almost like your post was describing me. Ill check back in case you repost with more info so maybe we can think of some near term steps you can take. Average folks wont fully understand even if you explain in detail. And I dont know where you started, but I DO understand where you have been/are at in terms of the aftermath - i been there too. I will be thinking about you friend, hang in there and call a professional immediately if you start feeling suicidal. I really think we can get past this stuff
I remember the second I realized a large part of me stayed in iraq. We were loading up on the chinook to leave our forward observing base. I watched as we lifted into the air. Tears in my eyes not wanting to leave that hell. I had already lost so much there. Too much blood had been spilled for me to leave. I feel like my soul jumped from the helicopter and saluted me as I flew away.
@B.Known -- That's a beautiful, poetic and really perfect image to describe the feeling after trauma. I, like you, know the exact moment I lost that important part of myself. In my recovery I worked really hard to get it back through several alternative reintegrating processes.
This may sound far out (and I haven't tried it myself), but if you ever decide you'd specifically like focus on how to bring your soul back, many survivors find enormous healing benefits from the practice of soul retrieval. If you're interested in learning about it, check out my friend Kelley Harrell: http://www.kelleyharrell.com/
A PTSD/trauma survivor and modern day shaman, Kelley has written extensively about soul retrieval and even shares in her work how it aided her own PTSD recovery.
Onward toward freedom,
We are doing a documentary movie, to play in Alberta on a major tv network, about PTSD, both with veterans and civilians.
We still are in need of a few PTSD people that are willing to talk about what worked and what did not work.
Please be in touch as soon as possible, if interested. We hope to film no later than Jun 15 2013.
joanne at internoodle.com
I didn't even realise that this is something I can get better from. I thought it was who I am. I've suffered for so many years I don't remember living before dissociation.
This has challenged me hopefully for the better.
Seems like such a long journey to be "normal" again :(
@Sue -- I thought that too, for soooo long! That's why it's so important to seek answers, ideas, knowledge, education and PTSD support: so that you can get the truth about what's possible for you.
It is a journey to normalcy, for sure, but it can happen in ways that are gently facilitated. Check out the alternative treatment approaches here: http://www.healmyptsd.com/treatment
And listen to the archives of my radio show, YOUR LIFE AFTER TRAUMA, for an overview of many treatments with great success rates: http://www.yourlifeaftertrauma.com/archives
Always remember: you have enormous healing potential. The goal is learning to access it. Onward toward freedom!
These reports of how it really is - so true. The dissociation for me was also reflected in my dreams where I was outside my body, observing. Also addressing recovery, I noticed big changes of improvement while reading a good book or watching an intellectual movie the second or third time around after being in recovery for several years. I recognize more subleties and complexitites i missed before. My brain is healing, slowly but surely. And using any kind of chemical mood alter sets me back.
@Tea -- Yay! I love hearing success stories like yours. Yes, 'slowly, but surely' is definitely how I would categorize the recovery process. Onward toward freedom. :)
Very interesting point, my nightmares mostly involve me observing someone else being tortured, and I'm sobbing unable to do anything to help or save them. Prior to these nightmares it was about me at T-minus-1, just before being tortured by the surgeon, and that moment of terror and realisation of being utterly powerless, and being at the mercy of a man who didn't care at all for me or my rights over my own body. Tortured and operated on without consent or explanation, and with sedative tablet, but not general anaesthetic.
I can only live my life and not give into despair and suicidal thoughts by having a certain amount of dissociation at all times and trying to not remember. It of course affects the things that I want to remember, and anything that triggers shame causes any thought or good idea to be deconstructed and forgotten within about fifteen minutes. I need to write it down or I have no way of remembering what it was at all.
Anything that triggers shame also causes me to blank out in conversation and I am easily overwhelmed. I used to be a highly intelligent critical care nurse. I've lost IQ points since.
[...] the US who struggle with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder then you probably know exactly what it feels like to dissociate. When a situation, emotions or triggers cause you to feel overwhelmed, anxious, frozen or terrified [...]
I am a disabled veteran with PTSD. I have been to a treatment center in the Tampa/St.Petersburg FL area at a VA Hospital. I know it has saved my life. My dissociative problem had gone far enough that I was experiencing auditory hallucinations. They were absolutely terrifying. Today, I have the tools to cope with it one day at a time. I'm not crazy! There are solutions and help is out there. Thanks for this wonderful resource as well . One more tool to help me continue to thrive rather than just survive.
@Sandra -- I love, love, love what you wrote: "I'm not crazy! There are solutions..." I had the same feeling during my PTSD recovery process. Suddenly things flip and you realize you are completely sane and just dealing with heavy stuff the only way you've known how.
I'm so glad to hear that you're moving into a much happier, better and more thriving oriented space. You are living proof that while trauma and PTSD can change the brain recovery and healing can change it again.
Onward toward freedom!
I have this everyday. I thought it was brainfog. Well I feel that my soul is stuck in Iraq and I just go through the motions to survive each day. The Gulf War has changed me forever. I must fight on in order to provide for my family.
Ruben, brainfog happens, too! I see brainfog as the type of distance that occurs when we just are handling and coping with so much internally that we don't have the focus or energy to see anything clearly externally. It may be a type of dissociation.... but it hasn't been clinically sanctioned in the way that dissociation has.
It would be terribly hard to move through the day when your soul feels stuck in another country and time. There are so many treatment options -- have you looked into ones that fall outside of the traditional talk therapy? Lots of successes with other modalities - and you don't have to rehash the past: http://healmyptsd.com/treatment
I always stood just behind myself. Amazing to still hear the validation from others out here.
Isn't it amazing, Jacki, that we could all have such different traumas and yet have so many similar experiences in the aftermath? That's the fact that's been most surprising to me to learn!