Pieces of the Past: How Unprocessed Trauma Leads to Disassociation

by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC

In my last blog I discussed how recent Neuroscience has shown that the brain has neuroplasticity. This means that the brain is continually reworking how neural pathways function, ramping up pathways that are used frequently and diminishing ones that are not. In addition, Neuroscience has also discovered that segments of the brain can also be disconnected due to childhood trauma. Not only that, but certain pathways or sections of the brain can be developed specifically because of recurring traumatic childhood events. It is thought that these disconnections are to blame for the experience that many victims of abuse have of not remembering events, or remembering only fractions of things that have occurred. These memories can be seemingly irrelevant: things such as physical sensations, smells, feelings, etc. However, if left disconnected from the fuller story, individuals often find it hard to fully recover from trauma. Things just keep “popping up” in one way or the other.

“If aspects of a traumatic experience are left disconnected from the fuller story, individuals often find it hard to fully recover from trauma.”

Integration and Trauma

The problem with traumatic experiences that have not been fully pieced together and processed, or integrated, is that the victim continues to not be able to control when the unintegrated sensations or feelings pop up. Heather Gingrich, in her book Restoring the Shattered Self: A Christian Counselor’s Guide to Complex Trauma, goes into great detail about how counselors can assist individuals in processing more fully the trauma of their past in ways that help them to integrate missing pieces. Interestingly, many now believe that what used to be coined Split Personalities is actually a severe form of disassociative experience that individuals who have experienced trauma can develop. These experiences involve disconnection or lack of continuity of thoughts, actions, memories, etc., a feeling of being not quite connected to different aspects or parts of themselves. Although many of us may experience brief moments of mentally “checking out”, ongoing experiences of this, or troubling consequences or feelings related to this, may warrant some exploration with a professional.

Healing from Disassociation and Trauma

If you or someone close to you experiences bouts of feeling disconnected, or an ongoing inability to feel present in their life, they may be experiencing disassociative symptoms. Individuals who are able to engage in counseling often find it helpful to have the experience normalized. Although processing trauma can be a huge step towards healing and moving forward, some individuals might not be ready to explore the difficult things that have happened in their lives. Even so, help in the form of counseling, can equip individuals to manage their feelings, develop new coping skills, and build a support system that can provide comfort and safety.

Published by thinkagainjenn

Jennifer Newton Martin is a Licensed Professional Counselor and writer in Libertyville, Illinois.

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