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Rethinking Trauma: Understanding Dissociation as Adaptation

Trauma sometimes causes distressing symptoms such as dissociation.

Key points

  • The trauma response is a sign of strength and adaptation.
  • Dissociation is an adaptive part of the trauma response, though it is distressing it often can be healed.
  • Awareness about what dissociation is and where it comes from can help us unpack and understand trauma.

This is part 1 in a series about rethinking the trauma response.

The history of the study of trauma has included many missteps and misunderstandings and it has been difficult to shake these incorrect beliefs about trauma. For example, it used to be the case that we believed that the trauma response is a sign of weakness and disorder. What newer science reveals is that the trauma response is a protective and adaptive response. It is, at its root, a sign of strength and the human will to survive. While the symptoms of trauma indeed cause distress, if we can understand the response correctly, we can heal without shame. It is critical to update our definitions and rethink trauma because this will make healing much more accessible.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Trauma Symptom: Dissociation, What Is It?

Dissociation is a psychological defense mechanism that can occur when an individual is faced with overwhelming or traumatic experiences. It involves a disconnection or detachment from one's thoughts, emotions, and surroundings. When we dissociate, we may feel numb, blank, disconnected from our bodies, or feel as though we are watching ourselves from outside our bodies.

In one of the very first cases of trauma described in psychology, the patient would dissociate when she smelled oranges. Her dissociation was so intense that she thought she was in her old apartment. Her belief that it was 1880 instead of 1881 was so total that she forgot nearly every detail of 1881, including the fact that she had moved.

She was carried back to the previous year with such intensity that in the new house she hallucinated her old room, so that when she wanted to go to the door she kicked up against the stove which stood in the same relation to the window as the door did in the old room (Freud and Breuer, Studies on Hysteria, 57).

Along the spectrum, dissociation can be much less extreme. For example, an individual may experience dissociation during an argument with their partner and suddenly their mind goes so blank that they actually can’t remember what they were arguing about. Similarly, a person may experience dissociation in the middle of a work presentation and start to feel like they are watching themselves from afar rather than being in their body. In another instance, an individual may be on a train that gets stuck underground and their perceptions start to shift, causing all of the noise of the passengers to suddenly sound very far away.

Why does dissociation happen?

In a traumatic moment, dissociation can occur as a way of protecting oneself from the overwhelming emotional and physical pain that may be experienced. For example, a person who is in a car accident may dissociate to avoid feeling the fear and pain of the crash. This can allow the person to cope with the situation and make it through the experience.

When we are reminded of the traumatic event that triggered our initial dissociative response, it can be a powerful trigger for dissociation again. This is because the brain has associated the original trauma with certain cues or reminders, which can be external (such as a location, sound, or smell) or internal (such as a certain feeling or thought pattern). These cues can be subtle and may not even be consciously recognized by the person experiencing the dissociation.

This can be challenging for individuals who have experienced trauma, as it can lead to unexpected and unwanted dissociative episodes. Therapy can be helpful in addressing these triggers and working through the underlying trauma to reduce the likelihood of dissociative responses in the future.

Dissociation, though it might make you feel like you are going crazy, is not a sign that you are losing your mind. It is a sign that your brain and body are trying to protect you. It is a sign of strength. Proof of the impulse to survive.

And it is not something that you have to live with forever.

What can I do about dissociation?

There are three steps individuals can take to learn how to short-circuit the process of dissociation and retrain their brain to recognize the difference between a real, current threat and the memory of a threat.

The first step is to learn how to recognize when dissociation happens. This involves getting granular and curious about when and where it occurs. Individuals can ask themselves questions such as: Is it within a specific relationship? Does it happen when facing a particular circumstance? Does it happen with only one person in their life? Once they have identified the triggers, individuals can hold onto the puzzle pieces that start to appear.

The second step is to get in tune with exactly what happens in the body before, during, and after dissociation. Although this may be difficult since dissociation involves checking out from somatic experience, there are likely signs right before checking out. By taking note of these signs and the experience of dissociation itself, individuals can understand the severity of their dissociation and the different types of dissociation that may need to be treated differently.

The final step is to retrain the brain and body to manage dissociation. Although there is no single paragraph that can distill all the things that individuals can do to battle dissociation, it is important to know that dissociation can be battled and won. The adaptive nervous system can adapt to threats brilliantly, and it can often readapt, too—with some work.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria, trans. James Strachey et al. (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

“The biology of human resilience: opportunities for enhancing resilience across the life span,” A Feder, S Fred-Torres, SM Southwick, DS Charney - Biological psychiatry, (Elsevier, 2019).

Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (New York: Random House, 2020).

Dan Tomasulo, Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2020).

McDonald, MaryCatherine, Unbroken: The Trauma Response is Never Wrong (Boulder: Sounds True, 2023).

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