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  • Fe Robinson

The link between dissociation and attachment

Dissociation can be a challenging psychological symptom to work with. When dissociated, people experience themselves less directly. They have gone into a shut down, a dorsal vagal response, where they are not connected to their own body or parts of their experience, and they feel distant, numb, foggy or disorientated. In severe cases a client may even feel that their body is not their own, or that the world is somehow not real.

Dissociation in itself can be a useful experience in some circumstances. It protects us, it’s there to avoid experiences that are just too much to bear. A surgeon needs to be able to dissociate to operate on the human body, as do emergency workers to place themselves in harm's way on our behalf. Dissociation is only a problem when it is involuntary and has consequences that are not wanted.

It’s great to see Bessel van der Kolk reflecting on the evidence that dissociation is not something that is wrong with a person, but actually the result of things that happened to them. If we have not had people who look at us with love, who picked us up as a child, who noticed and responded to our needs, then we disconnect and shut off, having to manage alone when we have not yet developed the connections and skills to functionally be able to do so. Dissociation of this kind can lead to a life of separateness, to less meaningful relationships, and to a host of other adverse experiences. It’s like surviving, rather than living.

Therapy is an enlivening process. As therapy unfolds, clients can notice their own patterns, and choose which to change. In the case of dissociation this may involve learning how to regulate their nervous system so that they can feel safe and connected within their own body, reducing the need for the safety escape chute that dissociation represents. It is often the case that clients regain a sense of their own vibrance and energy as they begin to inhabit their bodies more fully and more often.

Our relationships early in life have a profound and ongoing impact on our lives and relationships throughout life. If you would like to reflect on this within your own experience, psychotherapy is a good place to do this. If you’d like support, then get in touch. Sessions are available online for UK clients, and in person in Gainford, Co. Durham.


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