In episode 291, I received an interesting and personal question from someone experiencing trauma dissociation, leaving them feeling like they have struck a roadblock. In this post, I take a deeper look at trauma dissociation, what it is, and offer my thoughts and considerations.
I am trying to work through some struggles from my childhood. And I have some questions related to that. First a little backstory. I am 25 years old. Growing up my father was an alcoholic (he still is). When I was 14 he had a violent episode. I have tried to recall what happened, but it is like my brain is locked. But even if my brain cannot remember, my body still remembers. I get panic attacks, and I struggle with an eating disorder. Both started to happen after the thing that happened with my father.
Firstly, I find it difficult to talk about, since I have almost no memory of the episode. Furthermore, after the episode, my father ignored me for a good couple of years. He would not look me in the eye, etc. That almost made me believe that I was making it up in my mind. Last year I talked with my little sister about that night for the first time, as she had also been present. I do not know why I have not thought about talking to her about it sooner, but I finally got confirmed what I always thought had happened, but never actually knew.
So – turning to my issue/question. When I am in therapy and try to notice what I “feel”, I either get so numb that the feeling disappears, or nightmare-looking scenes come flashing in front of my eyes. Which scares me so much, that just I shut off.
After almost a year of therapy, I am starting to get slightly frustrated. I feel am just banging my head against a brick wall. The brick wall being me and how my body responds. And I can’t seem to move past it. I was wondering if you have any thoughts on the subject.
Thank you for writing in and for trusting me with this information. I’m sorry that happened to you. Even if you don’t have a clear memory of exactly what happened, you see the impact that it has had, which has been really troubling for you. I’m glad you survived and I wish you didn’t have to experience that. You didn’t deserve it and you do not deserve what you are feeling now.
This is a really interesting situation. A lot of people have gone through trauma that they don’t totally remember. There are a variety of reasons for this. It’s understood that repression can be a defense mechanism to protect our minds from the pain of trauma. There are also other factors like the fact that abusers often minimize or deny what happened. When there weren’t witnesses or other corroborating info, you can really doubt yourself. Trauma can be a lightning rod for gaslighting where you start to feel like you’re the crazy one, that you did something to bring it about, etc. In your situation, it’s a little bit different. I’m super proud of you for talking to your sister about this. That takes a shit-ton of courage, and you should be really proud of yourself. Again, a lot of people won’t speak up about abuse that happened because they are afraid that they made it up or are exaggerating. They don’t want to cause drama when they might be wrong. So, you had to overcome your own personal doubts and hang-ups about this. And what did you get from that? Confirmation. She confirmed that what you felt happened to you was true. That’s amazing and powerful. Now, I do need to say that not everyone gets that and that doesn’t make their trauma any less valid. We don’t get to control trauma. But in your case, you now have some validation that that’s powerful.
I love what you said about your body remembering even when your mind doesn’t fully. That’s absolutely how trauma works. It sounds like you have been experiencing what’s called dissociation. This is basically the feeling of detaching from reality. You might feel disconnected from your own body or the “scene” happening around you. This is also understood to be a defense mechanism. It can be more or less a conscious process where your mind essentially “checks out” because it doesn’t want to feel the brunt of the pain that it is confronted with. That’s likely what is going on in therapy. You approach the topic that your mind tries to keep separate and wants desperately to avoid and suddenly you are hit with these numb moments of dissociation. The other thing that you mentioned sounds a lot like flashbacks.
Basically, with trauma, we have highly charged sensory memories that feel scarier and more immediate than our other memories. This creates a tendency to avoid them. Whether it is avoiding the specific memory, or the symptoms and feelings associated with that memory. Your mind just wants to keep the traumatic memory in its special little box in your psyche and not approach it, which helps it remain a threat. It’s something that can actively impact you, even if it happened years ago. The process of unpacking this and progressively learning to approach these difficult things can take some time. Think about the impact that this trauma has had on your life. It’s been absolutely significant, so you can’t expect it to be resolved in a few weeks. It will not always be this way.
Therapy and other considerations
That said, I’d ask a few questions here. Are you working with someone that specializes in trauma? Trauma, in general, is something that most therapists understand, but not as many are super-specialized in. There are also multiple approaches to dealing with PTSD and trauma. There is trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, brain spotting, etc. Regardless of the approach, you ideally want to find someone that has a good amount of experience with trauma. If you can find someone that specifically specializes in trauma, that would be best. This information can often be gleaned from their website or from contacting them directly. If you feel like you are stagnant with your therapist or they are not using an approach that is helpful for you, I’d encourage you to bring that up with them or consider looking at other options.
You might also look into other approaches and activities that connect you to your body. Given your language, I feel like this might be something you’ve already done, but there is a very popular and awesome book about trauma called The Body Keeps the Score. You might look into that. There are some other things aside from just therapy that could be helpful. Things that help you connect to your body. Bodywork with a trained bodyworker, dance, sports, etc. are all ways for you to get more in touch with your body. To make your mind, emotions, and body communicate. If you do things that helps to connect you with your body, to exert yourself, etc. you might be surprised by what comes out. For example, when I was going through a really difficult experience in the past year or so, I did a lot of personal work, but was surprised by how much emotion came out while exerting myself while running. Lastly, there are some other approaches that a lot of people don’t consider for trauma including TMS and ketamine infusions that have research support for helping people deal with trauma. This is especially relevant when you’ve tried to do the work and nothing seems to be helping.
So thank you for your question. I’m proud of you for speaking up about this and seeking help for it. Keep trying. Trust in the process. Approach rather than avoid. If you are feeling stuck or unheard, consider other approaches. There is no rush here. You want relief from the negative feelings, but they can’t harm you. Take things are your pace and understand that this is worth your attention.
You can listen to this on Episode 291 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
If you know someone else who might benefit from this, please do share it with them. Send them a link or shoot over a screenshot, and share it on social media to show your support – you never know who needs to hear this type of information.
Got a topic or a guest you’d like to appear on the show? Or interested in having Duff answer a question on the podcast? Please get in touch! Email Duff and maybe you’ll hear it on a future episode!
Want to help out the show and Duff the Psych?
- Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.
- Leave a podcast review on iTunes. These reviews really help Duff reach potential listeners, and he appreciates every one!
- Share the show on Facebook or Twitter.
- You can also buy Duff a cup of coffee, which helps fuel the energy that goes straight back into creating more content for YOU!