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What Is the Connection between Dissociation and PTSD?

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  • Written By: L. Baran
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 13 April 2018
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While there is a distinct difference between the two psychological diagnoses of dissociation and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the two conditions often occur at the same time, particularly after an extremely traumatic event. When dissociation and PTSD occur together, it may seem as if the event never happened at all — as a new identity is created to avoid the painful memories. Similar symptoms between the two diagnoses include detachment, a lack of emotional responses, and a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities. Other signs of dissociation and PTSD are trouble sleeping, anger, exaggerated responses to typical situations and a heightened state of awareness.

One means by which a person may cope with a painful event is called dissociation, a condition which may involve seemingly forgetting the incident, creating distance between loved ones, or creating an alternate identity. When an incident or series of events is so terrible or upsetting to an individual, he or she may develop dissociation amnesia. It will appear as if the event itself, and other parts of the person's life, have been completely forgotten. In reality, the event still exists, but has been temporarily removed from the person's consciousness to provide protection from further pain and anxiety.

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In the case of dissociative identity disorder, a person may create multiple separate identities to deal with different situations in his or her life. These different personalities are not strictly under the control of the individual and may take control of behaviors and emotions without warning. If a situation occurs that resembles the post traumatic stress trigger, adopting an alternate identity may prevent anxiety and flashbacks. In essence, this alternate identity does not have a connection to the past trauma.

In certain circumstances, having dissociation and PTSD at the same time may be of benefit to a person. When the memories of the event are simply too difficult to cope with, temporary escape from those feelings may be helpful until sufficient time has passed so that the event can be revisited with greater emotional control. Forgetting some of the details of the trauma could make recovery easier in the future. Unfortunately, escaping from the dissociative disorder itself can be as great of a challenge as recovering from the initial trauma.

While it can be difficult to obtain clear data about the number of people suffering from dissociation and PTSD, many psychologists estimate that the vast majority of people with PTSD also exhibit some symptoms of a dissociative disorder. It is important that those at risk, such as victims of rape, terrorism or war, are identified and monitored as quickly as possible. With appropriate medical help and the support of family and friends, treatment can be successful and reduce the anxiety, stress and detachment that can lead to dangerous, self-harming actions.

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