The Link Between Trauma and Dissociation


Trauma has many long-term effects, both physical and mental. One such effect can be dissociation, where people can feel detached from themselves, their bodies, and their experiences.

What is Dissociation?

Dissociation is the disconnect between a person and their thoughts, feelings, memories, and behaviours. In many cases, for those dealing with trauma, dissociation can interfere heavily with their lives and relationships, making them struggle to feel things or interact with their loved ones.

Dissociation is one way the brain tries to protect people from traumatic events. It can occur due to trauma such as abuse, assault, or a natural disaster and may happen during the event or at any time after. It can last for a short time or span several weeks or even months.

Dissociation can be experienced in many different ways, and it can be different for everyone. People may:

  • Have gaps in their memory
  • Be unable to remember events or information about their life
  • Feel as though the world around them is not real
  • Feel as though they are watching themselves from the outside
  • Find it very difficult to define what kind of person they are

There are two forms of dissociation:

  • Depersonalisation – this form of dissociation makes people feel like they are watching themselves from the outside. They may feel numb or small, and this can often happen in times of distress.
  • Derealisation – derealisation can make the outside world seem unnatural or dreamlike. Derealisation can help people manage the situation during traumatic events by making it seem unreal.

There is also a type of dissociation known as dissociative amnesia. This form of amnesia affects people’s ability to remember traumatic information, memories, and emotions and can also cause people to forget part or all of a traumatic incident. Those affected by dissociative amnesia may not remember important events, such as attending a job interview, or may find notes or items and have no memory of how they got them.

Dissociation is common, and around 75% of people will experience it in their lifetimes. However, those struggling with trauma may experience dissociation much more frequently.

Dissociation and Trauma

Dissociation and trauma are closely linked. One study found that, in a similar way to how childhood trauma affects the brain, dissociation is linked to similar changes and can affect neural connections that may affect symptoms and behaviours of dissociation.[1]

Childhood trauma and ongoing trauma are most associated with dissociation. Severe, ongoing trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse before the age of nine is most likely to contribute to dissociation in children, with symptoms presenting themselves from as early as five years.[2]

While dissociation can initially help people cope with traumatic events, it can have long-term effects that can affect them into the future. People may dissociate in situations that are not threatening, leading to complications in relationships and professional environments, and may also hinder trauma recovery, as addressing the traumatic event may be perceived as a threat.[3] 

The Freeze Response

There are multiple ways the body can respond to a traumatic event taking place. To protect the person, the body may send signals to the brain to run or fight off the threat. However, there is a third response to trauma – the freeze response.

Some people may not be able to move in the face of a traumatic event and may instead freeze, making them unable to face the threat they are presented with. This overwhelm can contribute to dissociation, with the body trying to survive the experience by simply disconnecting.

Dissociation is not just limited to a traumatic event. It can arise long after the event is over and may present itself in response to certain triggers that a person associates with their trauma. Some people may even use dissociation as a coping strategy to manage the effects of trauma or ongoing trauma such as abuse.

Children especially may use dissociation to cope with trauma, as they may be unable to do anything to help themselves. Dissociating can help them to deal with what is happening to them or experience reality as a dream that is not really happening.[4]

Coping With Dissociation

Dissociation can be incredibly unnerving and difficult to stop or break away from. However, there are ways that people can cope with dissociative periods, such as:

  • Practising grounding techniques – grounding techniques help people to connect to the present and avoid intrusive thoughts or flashbacks. They involve engaging the senses and focusing on tangible sensations to help people better connect to their bodies. Touching soft items, tasting a strong flavour, or listening to music or a podcast are all effective grounding techniques that can help people to prevent or manage dissociation.
  • Keeping a journal – a journal can help people to look back on dissociative periods and make more sense of what happened and how they felt. Journalling can also help to foster an awareness of a person’s identity, which can help to combat dissociative symptoms.
  • Sleeping and exercising – sleep, diet, and exercise all contribute to well-being, which can help people manage dissociation better. Eating regularly and keeping blood sugar stable can boost energy and mood and sleeping enough allows people to cope better with difficult experiences in general.

Do not hesitate to seek professional help to heal from traumatic events that could be causing dissociation, as treating the root causes can help to prevent it from happening. Although dissociation can be challenging to recover from, it is possible with the proper support and guidance.

By seeking professional help and utilising healthy coping techniques, dissociation can be limited, and the underlying causes can be treated.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] Krause-Utz A, Elzinga B. Current understanding of the neural mechanisms of dissociation in borderline personality disorder. Curr Behav Neurosci Rep. 2018;5(1):113-123. doi:10.1007/s40473-018-0146-9

[2] Gillig PM. Dissociative identity disorder: A controversial diagnosis. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2009;6(3):24-9.

[3] Kalsched D. Trauma, innocence and the core complex of dissociation. J Anal Psychol. 2018;62(4):474-500. doi:10.1111/1468-5922.12333

[4] Choi KR, Seng JS, Briggs EC, et al. The dissociative subtype of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among adolescents: Co-occurring PTSD, depersonalization/derealization, and other dissociation symptoms. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2017;56(12):1062-1072. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2017.09.425