Dissociation and Changes in Brain Structure

Posted by:

Dissociation is a learned program which “protects” us from a cruel environment; like a trip to the moon which buffers us from an uncomfortable reality. Moments of stress reminds us of bad times during our childhoods and makes us dissociate from our surroundings.

Dissociation may take many forms, some people get tough and repressed, others are shy, others are paranoid and afraid, others are upset and cranky, still others are dreaming awake, etc, etc. A person is absent from him or herself all the while he or she is “unconscious” of their actions. Some people don’t have a conscious memory of what they did during the moment of dissociation. Others do have the memory or they remember retrospectively, but they have the sensation that they were out of control and when the stress trigger event is no longer present, or when the old wounds are not poked any longer, they come back to their senses and become more conscious of their acts.

Myth of Sanity by Martha Stout is an excellent book about the subject. The author knows hundreds of survivors of childhood or adulthood trauma as a therapist. She describes with eloquence the “myth of sanity” which everybody can relate to because after all, we all dissociate to one extent or another, so we all are a bit “crazy”.

…by the next heartbeat, a long-entrenched dissociative reaction to the declared emergency may already have been tripped in her brain, to “protect” her from this “unbearable” childhood memory. She may feel strangely angry, or paranoid, or childishly timid. Or instead she may feel that she has begun to move in an uncomfortably hazy dream world, far away and derealized. Or she may completely depart from her “self” for a while, continue to act, but without self-awareness. Should this last occur in a minor way, her total experience may be something such as, “Today when I was going to work, the train pulled into the station—the blasted thing is so loud!—and the next thing I remember, it was stopping at my stop.” She may even be mildly amused at herself for her spaciness.

Most of us do not notice these experiences very much. They are more or less invisible to us as we go about daily life, and so we do not understand how much of daily life is effectively spent in the past, in reaction to the darkest hours we have known, nor do we comprehend how swampy and vitality-sucking some of our memories really are. Deepening the mire of our divided awareness, in the course of a lifetime such “protective” mental reactions acquire tremendous habit strength. These over-exercised muscles can take us away even when traumatic memory fragments have not been evoked. Sometimes dissociation can occur when we are simply confused or frustrated or nervous, whether we recognize our absences or not.[Myth of Sanity, Martha Stout]

A traumatic event can be triggered by many events which can include being upraised in a narcissistic family, or being racially discriminated, being sexually abused, or surviving natural disasters, violence, etc. The severity of the dissociative state depends on the effect that an event have in our perception, in ourselves. For one person a natural disaster might not be traumatic at all, but for another person it might be the beginning of a fragmented mind/dissociative state.

Here is an article which shows how our brains can change after significant early childhood abuse, and even if it doesn’t mean it happens to all of us, it helps us understand biological changes which are rooted in childhood.

Early Abuse ‘Changes Brain Structure’

Daily Telegraph
Sun, 22 Feb 2009

Abuse in early childhood can dramatically alter the way the brain copes with stress in adulthood, research shows.

Children abused during their formative years can undergo a change in the structure of their brains, which inhibits the expression of a stress hormone-related gene (NR3C1).

This would make such children less able to cope with stress, according to the Canadian study, which examined the brains of 12 people with a history of child abuse who had taken their own lives.

The brain samples were compared with those of two other groups: people who had committed suicide but had no history of abuse, and those who had died of natural causes.

“They found significant differences in stress-related hormone receptors in those who had committed suicide and had been abused,” said Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Professor Ross Young, commenting on the findings.

“They also found evidence that parts of the NR3C1 gene may be switched off by this abuse, leading to an abnormal stress response in adulthood.”

The change in the functioning of the gene occurred in the hippocampus, the part of the brain largely responsible for memory function.

The study showed how the reduced expression of the gene led to an increase in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) response to stressful situations.

Such heightened HPA responses have previously been linked to an increased risk of suicide, mood disorders and also schizophrenia.

Early childhood experience has been shown to cause long-term genetic changes in the stress response pathway in rats, but this is the first evidence that the same thing happens in humans.

Prof Young, the executive director of the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at QUT, said the findings reinforced the importance of child abuse prevention.

“We also need to ensure that we have effective interventions that assist adults who have been abused in childhood to respond effectively to stress,” he said.

Prof Young said the research also underscored how “being raised in a stable and safe environment as a child helps us deal with stress in adulthood”.

The study is published online in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

If you are interested in the subject, there is further information about changes in brain structure after being raised in unstable and unsafe environments in Myth of Sanity and Paranoia Switch by Martha Stout.

  Related Posts


Add a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.