• Relational psychotherapist Richard Cross explains the relationship between trauma and dissociation, and how EMDR can help

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Dissociation is often misunderstood. People often use the analogy of driving and suddenly reaching a destination without remembering their journey, which is an example of dissociation without trauma. There is however much to explore in terms of the connection between dissociation and trauma.

Pierre Janet (1889) is considered to be the first to describe a clear rationale for dissociation as a psychological defence against overwhelming traumatic experiences, and much of his writing holds true today. He was the first to propose a 'staged' orientated approach to the treatment of trauma, which has since been reinforced by many modern pioneers in the field of trauma treatment such as Onno van de hart, Judith Herman, Bessel van de Kolk.

Such experiences can create 'fear without resolution' and any effective treatment seeks to overcome the 'loss of words' which is a key concept in the overcoming of trauma. Trauma treatment aims to help a client create a narrative composed of words, feelings and emotions, as an alternative to the phobic response of avoiding and not allowing the distressing emotional experience to enter consciousness.

This method seeks to resolve the experience many trauma survivors have of alternating between the re-experiencing their traumatic experiences, being back in 'trauma time', and being detached from it and its effects.

Following traumatic experiences people need to both manage the impact of the traumatic experience, and manage day to day life. This has been described as structural dissociation (Myers, 1940) in that there is a dividedness between the "apparent normal personality" and the "emotional personality".

When he studied the impact of trauma on those who survived World War I, Myers noticed that a part of the integrated 'narrative' of the trauma, the 'emotional' parts of personality (EP), are often charged with the emotional and sensorimotor experiences of the 'trauma time'. It is therefore considered that the emotional part holds the traumatic, painful and distressing experiences which need to be resolved, which wasn't possible when faced with the threat.

For many survivors, I believe it is less about getting back to where you were before the traumatic event, and more about getting to a new place which is not plagued by intrusive and distressing thoughts, feelings and emotions experienced during the trauma. Therapy, especially EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, can help with this process.

Further reading

Understanding trauma and flashbacks

Dissociation: the ultimate superpower?

On finding gratitude after trauma

How EMDR can support you through trauma