Depersonalization Cure Tip #3: Trauma

Harris Harrington teaches you the importance of overcoming past trauma in curing DP.

trauma article oneBy Harris Harrington

In essence, the deepest, earliest, and often times most insidious cause of DP/DR is trauma. I will try to explain this topic in the best detail here in this article, but for a truly thorough understanding and application of the ideas here, you need to try the ten hour Total Integration Method.

You will Probably Resist what I’m going to tell you

In order to resolve your trauma, you are going to have to take a less-than-perfect view of your family and your close attachment relationships. This can be painful for people.

There is a actually a disorder in which people who are kidnapped or held hostage develop positive feelings towards their captors. This disorder is known as Stockholm Syndrome. When these prisoners are freed, they often view the people who controlled them and inflicted them with pain in a very positive light.

In my opinion (and this may sound quite negative) most people are walking around in sort of state of Stockholm syndrome toward their parents.

It doesn’t’ mean you have to disown your parents, hate your life, and blame others for your own faults. In fact, I stress living a life of gratitude and optimism, and taking responsibility.

The problem with denying, and avoiding painful aspects of life, is that is furthers the dissociation you already feel. People with DP constantly obsess about existential issues, but they have trouble focusing on their own lives.

I’m not trying to force a diagnosis on you

Some therapists actually convince their patients that they have been abused when they in fact weren’t. It’s a very controversial area of psychology. There is actually a name for this kind of misdiagnosis: iatrogenesis.

It’s my belief that a minority of people with DPD haven’t truly experienced trauma, and likely came from good life situations.  This may include you.

However, I urge you to be open to trauma processing, because for a majority of DPD sufferers, it is critical for recovery and becoming an empowered person.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is any experience that is so stressful or overwhelming that it is pushed out of awareness either consciously or unconsciously. It could also be elements of experience that are pushed out of awareness, such as emotions. There are normal forms of dissociation that everyone experiences, and then there are pathological forms of dissociation, which are at the heart of dissociative disorders and most personality disorders.

But I didn’t have Trauma!”

The problem with trying to explain trauma to people with depersonalization is that trauma is something that is only somewhat consciously recognized, if at all. It’s easy for people to say they never had trauma.

People with depersonalization are extremely eager to deny or avoid thinking about the negative aspects of their lives. Remember, depersonalization disorder is a dissociative disorder.

I spent most of my life ignoring my life. In other words, I wasn’t willing to admit to myself that I was neglected, emotionally abused, and had almost zero guidance from my parents, and basically no adults to consult with.

This doesn’t mean I’m ungrateful for my life. In fact it’s the opposite. I’m extremely grateful, and I try to see the good in the bad. At the same time, deluding, denying and distorting reality only hurts you.

Examples of Trauma

  • disorganized attachment style
  • psychological abuse (which often leaves you questioning if you were mistreated)
  • verbal abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • guilt tripping
  • gas lighting
  • neglect (eg. Parents being late to school for hours on end)
  • captivity (eg. Being kept in a lonely house in suburbia with limited contact to other adults, friends, or the outside world)
  • sexual abuse
  • physical abuse

Types of Parents that Raise DPD sufferers

  • Narcissists
  • Sociopaths
  • Anyone with severe depression, anxiety, or personality disorder
  • Alcoholic parents, or parents from families of alcoholics

I talk about dysfunctional families at length in my program. It is an enormous topic, and extremely important to understand.

brain article

A Technical Look at Trauma, the brain, and Dissociation

You might be aware of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This disorder is often experienced by members of the military who have seen battle. What happens during extremely traumatic events, such as witnessing a close friend getting blown up, is that a part of the brain has been injured by the release of stress chemicals called cortisol. A horrific experience such as that is so stressful that many times people actually have amnesia for the event. The stress was so high that a memory trace was not able to take root in the brain. At high levels, stress chemicals can actually kill brain cells in a key area we will talk about later. This part of the brain can regrow, as relatively recent scientific studies have shown (a process known as neurogenesis).

For people with depersonalization disorder, what usually happens is a more mild form of stress occurs. This form of trauma is more complex, and occurs over a period of time. In essence, it is accumulated trauma. This could be when a parent puts you in a constant state of guilt for years, it could be when you were verbally abused by someone day after day. Parents who are “too busy” and neglect their children also inflict this abuse.

It could also be not having someone there to support you when you are stressed out.

In Depersonalization Disorder, the trauma can be extremely subtle, and almost not appear to be traumatic. It could be a mother who was just a “tad distant”, or father who just made you uncomfortable a lot around others.

People with DPD usually have sensitive personality types, or are “highly sensitive people”. (see my Depersonalization and Personality article/video for a further discussion on the topic.) For sensitive people, the threshold stress level for trauma is much lower.

In a minority of DPD cases, people acquire the disorder in their youth. These instances are usually because of more severe abuse, such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, or more severe emotional abuse. These types of people may also experience more severe dissociative disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder, or Dissociative Identity Disorder.

The Hippocampus and Dissociative Disorders

There have been brain studies on people with different forms of dissociation, showing that people with more severe disorders have more hippocampal atrophy. The hippocampus is an important brain region for emotional processing. One of its functions is to put the “break” on the stress response.

When our hippocampus is weak, it can be difficult to stop the fear part of the brain (the amygdala) from firing off. Of course I’m generalizing, but this is exactly what happens in people who suffer from PTSD. They come back from war, and may hear a car back fire. But what happens? They freak out. The fear center fires off as though it were a bomb going off.

We have two forms of memory: implicit emotional, and explicit verbal. The startle response is when our fear center fires off immediately. In people with a healthy hippocampus, a contextual and verbal part of the mind says “oh hey, its not a bomb, but a car backfiring!”. Normal people then calm down.

In Depersonalization Disorder there isn’t as much hippocampal damage. In fact, it’s probably extremely mild compared to PTSD. And as I mentioned before, the cells of the hippocampus that have been damaged from excessive chronic stress can regrow. Well guided psychotherapy (as represented by the Total Integration Method) can help with this process immensely.

Trauma from the Past can influence our emotions in the NOW

In depersonalization disorder, past trauma is influencing our experience in the now. Many people get confused about this when I try to tell them. They think “that stuff happened in the past, it doesn’t matter now!”

Tell that to someone with PTSD.

We know that past experiences sculpt the brain for better or worse, and that current experience can change the brain as well. Traumatic memories get stored in our amygdala (generalizing again) and can actually “pollute” our present moment with the stresses of the past.

We can stop this from happening by processing our past trauma and making sense of our life, healing our fractured sense of self.

How exactly is trauma processed?

When we process our past we can actually link up our hippocampus (verbal, explicit, contextual memory) with our amygdala (the emotional, general, implicit) through conscious processing of our past. In my program, I give an extremely well guided, and specific way of doing this that dramatically helped me regain my sense of reality. Combined with anxiety and obsession management, this is the fastest track to full DP recovery.

Every time we recall a memory, or “reaccess” it, we are changing it. When we recall, reflect, and more importantly write about our past experiences and weave them into a personal narrative or life story, we can actually change the way we feel about our life. In every memory, especially highly emotional memories, there are two components: the facts, and the emotions.

When recalling traumatic memories there are two pitfalls to be avoided: retraumatization and dissociation.

When getting ready to journal about specific past events, its important to be in a relaxed state of mind. You don’t want to tackle your challenging past when you’ve just had a panic attack. It’s a good idea to do some relaxation exercises, diaphragmatic breathing, and be in a decent mood.

When some people recall traumatic memories, particularly those with DP, it is easy to get retraumatized and actually feel the pain of the past as though its happening in the present. That’s not the purpose or goal of processing. The goal of processing is to be able to reflect on past trauma and be able to integrate it into your conscious awareness.

Hence the name of my program is the Total Integration Method.

This doesn’t mean you have to cover up the way you feel about the past. It just means that if you feel overwhelmed by the traumatic processing, you may want to take a break. If you find it extremely difficult to recall this material, even after relaxing, then you may want to do this inner work with an expert therapist trained in trauma related disorders. I also recommend doing CBT in conjunction with psychotherapy.

Attachment Styles and Attachment theory

baby article one

Attachment theory is a branch of developmental psychology. The idea is that we develop different ways of relating to people (and processing emotions) depending on our first attachments to our parents (or primary caregivers).

It’s a fairly complicated topic, but essentially people with depersonalization likely have disorganized attachment. What this means is they had a parent who was either frightening to them, or frightened of them on a such a consistent basis that it was difficult for the child to attach to the parent (because they were afraid or uncomfortable around them).

This style of attachment lays the groundwork for dissociation later in life, because it makes it difficult for people to consciously process stressful events. It goes without saying that consciously processing trauma helps heal this form of attachment.

In addition to inner work, its extremely important to find emotionally secure friends and romantic partners to attach to. An expert therapist can also be a “secure base” that you can use to acquire a secure attachment style.

Depersonalization is a result of complex/cumulative trauma, not single events

One of the big differences between PTSD and DPD is that depersonalization is usually not caused by a single traumatic event, but rather a series of more mild events, or a traumatic life situation. This is why coming from a subtly dysfunctional family is often the cause. You may not have been physically abused, but perhaps psychologically abused or neglected in such a way that you don’t even recognize your own abuse.

This type of complex trauma is a relatively new diagnostic category that is going to be included in the DSM V. It’s called C-PTSD. In many ways, depersonalization disorder is a form of Complex Post Traumatic Stress.

Rumination is different from Trauma Processing

Being constantly filled with regret and pain about the past is not the goal of trauma processing. In fact, that’s the opposite of the goal. The goal is to process your past so that you can move on and be a healthy adult.

The psychotherapy treatment I recommend isn’t meant to be practiced for life. My method is highly guided, brief, and focused. Even a few weeks to a few months of working with my program can be all it takes.

Constant self focus increases depersonalization, and I don’t recommend it. The specific exercises and guidance I give in my program is not the same as obsessive rumination and internal focus.

The goal of Trauma Processing is not to be stuck in the past.

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You don’t have to spend years in psychotherapy to overcome DP. In my program I provide a thorough education on how to understand and process the life you went through.

You also don’t have to process every single bad thing you went through. As long as you have made sense of the major themes and events in your life, you will have done the job of “trauma processing”.  Any symptoms of DP you are still feeling will likely be due to unhealthy thought patterns, or behaviors you need to fix in the present.

When you have essentially made sense of your life, you have processed it. As you keep living, more reflection will be required. In days of yore this work was much more integral to our experience as humans. We lived in tribes where constant story telling and socialization led to the immediate integration of pain and traumatic experiences.

In today’s dissociogenic culture it’s important to keep a journal regularly, and to express your emotions on a regular basis, even after you have worked over much of your past problems.

Processing your life through conversations with friends and lovers is also key to this process, and by developing positive attachments to these secure people, we develop emotional security in ourselves.

Ultimately, the point of trauma processing is to be able to go out and live our life, pursue our goals, and become the people we want to become. It’s about overcoming this strange sensation of being cut off form ourselves and the outer world.

What it means to process your trauma

Processing your past trauma does not mean that you will be some sort of angelic being that magically dances around. It doesn’t mean that you will be perfect, and you don’t have to perfectly process ALL of your past painful experiences to overcome DP.

You just have to develop a secure sense of self, and a secure way of MAKING SENSE of your life. This is called developing a secure narrative of your life. In attachment theory they call it “earned security”.

Sitting in a room and processing your past isn’t an end goal to DP. Ultimately, the point of developing a secure sense of self is the ability to develop healthy, meaningful relationships with others, and to be able to process your emotions in a healthy way.

Being able to think about your life is the cure to DP.

If you were able to think and reflect on your trauma, you wouldn’t have DP (aside from anxiety and obsession). In a way it’s almost circular. But being aware of your own life situation can take some study and growth. It may be uncomfortable to face certain elements of your life.

In my program I teach you how to develop a solid knowledge of what a healthy and unhealthy family situation is, what unhealthy relationships are, and how to be an assertive person. It’s through a process of trauma integration that we heal the fissures in our sense of self.

Through growing as a person, and processing your trauma, you can overcome depersonalization and derealization.