PTSD: Dissociation & Derealization

In the wake of trauma, many people develop PTSD, or in the case of sustained or repeated trauma, it could become Complex PTSD. Those around us (who we need more than ever) will often distance themselves, mostly because they don’t know what to do. People are terrified to step into another’s hell, even for a moment. It leaves us feeling even more broken and alone.

Some PTSD symptoms include hypervigilance, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation, and derealization. Today we’re going to focus on these last two, as they can be very scary for both the traumatized person and those who love them.

Trauma Response

We can help others help us by teaching them how to recognize PTSD symptoms, why they occur, and what to do. Trauma affects the nervous system, especially if they weren’t able to fight or escape. Most people have heard of “fight or flight” as a response to trauma, but there are two more: freeze and fawn.

Some people, especially women, have been socialized to fawn in the face of danger. This means that they do what they can to diffuse the situation. An example of this is when a man gives unwanted sexual attention to a woman, say at a bar. He’s agressive. She’s likely been taught, either directly or through observation, experience, or generational trauma, to not make him angry. So instead of telling him to fuck off, she mentions her boyfriend (whether she has one or not) or tells him whatever he wants to hear, just so she can get away safely. You can also observe this in animals, as a dog will do anything to please his abuser, just anything to stop being beaten once again.

Freezing is another trauma response. Animals exhibit this behavior in the face of danger, like playing dead for example. In humans one can be conditioned to freeze, especially if they were repeatedly punished for trying to stand up for themselves or get away. This is one of many reasons why it’s not important to chide a rape survivor for not fighting back or to judge their experience wasn’t assault because they didn’t fight back. Perhaps they couldn’t.

When people freeze during a trauma response, they sometimes also dissociate, like an out-of-body experience, as their brain tries to protect them from the traumatic experience. This is one type of dissociation, but it more often manifests after the event.

Dissociation

Similar to grief, the human brain does its best to protect us from the affects of trauma. Grief comes in waves because it enables us to process the loss in small chunks. In the aftermath of trauma, the brain might totally disconnect from thoughts, feeling, memories, or even your surroundings.

This can be a scary experience for both the traumatized and those witnessing it. It can take the form of a mild catatonic state, where the traumatized person stares off in the distance, unresponsive to external stimuli for a few minutes or longer. Some people dissociate from their emotions for months or even years. Dissociation can also affect your sense of time or your very identity. It can cause gaps in memory or make you feel like the world somehow isn’t real—or perhaps that you’re not real:

Derealization

Derealization is a specific type of dissociation where you feel disconnected from the world, as if it wasn’t real. It’s a surreal feeling that you’re watching life through a windows or on TV. Your surroundings look like they’re happening on a movie screen and you’re merely watching them. Separate. Unable to interact.

Thankfully episodes of derealization are usually short-lived, only lasting a few minutes at the most. Still, they’re disturbing to experience and to witness.

Natural Reactions

It’s important to note these types of experiences are normal responses to abnormal experiences. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, remind yourself of that. This is your brain trying to process the trauma, and it’s necessary to face these hard truths in order to heal from it.

It’s also important for people who love a traumatized individual to understand that these are natural reactions. Your support and understanding and kindness are imperative through the healing process. Reacting as if something is “wrong” with them can cause secondary trauma and deepen their psychological wound.

Validation is key.

Learn to validate their experience rather than dismiss it or spout platitudes because it’s uncomfortable or scary. Tell them, “Anyone would feel this way in your position. This is a natural response to your trauma. I’m right here. You’re safe.”

For those of you living with PTSD or C-PTSD, learn to tell yourself this, too. For many years it was something I told myself every day when I was truly struggling. Since I had been socialized to blame myself for everything, a sentiment reinforced by my abusers, I would state it out loud to myself. I learned to treat myself with the same kindness and compassion that I would show anyone else.

“Anyone would feel this way in your position.”

They’re powerful words of both radical acceptance and compassion.

Remember this: There is nothing wrong with you. This has been done to you. Your brain and nervous system are working to recalibrate as your process the trauma.

May you find peace.

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