What are the common symptoms of dissociation in people with childhood trauma?

A less known symptom in people who have history of childhood trauma is dissociation.  Usually, people are being aware of their depressive mood, anxiety, sleep problems, etc.  When they come to see me, they may tell me that they also experience some symptoms that do not make sense to them.  For example, a client felt shameful to tell me that she seems to have more than one person inside her.  This makes her very confused about who she is and what her true personalities are.  In extreme cases, people with this type of dissociation may develop to suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).  They have dissociative parts of personality that develop different views of the world, others and self.  These different parts have contradicting thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  For instance, a client of mine has different parts inside him that are not functioning together.  Sometimes, he would explode emotionally towards his girlfriend and exhibit violence.  Afterwards, he had no recollection of what had happened.  In other times, he was a very gentle and accommodating man who was sensitive to his girlfriend’s needs.

Another type of symptoms in people with dissociation is that they cannot experience what they should experience.  For example, a client cannot recall many childhood incidents in a particular segment of her life.  When I tried to explore the severity of the trauma she had experienced in her childhood, she could only give me vague description such as being chronically lonely and unhappy.  Sometimes, these people may report that they suddenly lose a skill that they used to have.  Another client told me that he suddenly felt worried as he forgot how to play tennis one morning in the court.  It is also common for people with dissociation to feel numb and unable to feel the sensation in their body or their inner emotions.  In fact, these symptoms are not related to medical conditions or neurological problems.

On the contrary, instead of experiencing too little, some people with dissociation experience intrusions of memories, thoughts, feelings, etc.  One of the common types of dissociative intrusion is flashbacks of past traumatic events.  For instance, a client of mine experienced an unexplained fear and anxiety when she talked to a client with authority and dominance.  Even though, she knew the client was respecting her and was confident in her service quality, she still felt fearful the night before the meeting with him.  This could be her emotional flashback of her past trauma caused by a dominant and authoritative man.  In an extreme, people with this type of dissociation may experience “voices” criticizing them that do not feel like their own experience.

In reality, people with dissociations have difficulty to recognize their symptoms.  It is important for those with childhood trauma experiences to learn to enhance their awareness of their inner experiences.  This is not an easy task.  Usually, they need to seek professional help to gradually learn to cope more effectively with their symptoms of dissociation.

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