Structural dissociation theory in trauma

The human mind is complex and its ability to adapt can be quite surprising. When a person experiences severe trauma, various defense mechanisms are activated in order to offer support to emotional stress. One of these is dissociation, which allows the consciousness to be divided into several parts. So that it can continue to function despite the severe traumas experienced. This can be explained by the interesting theory of structural dissociation.

When it comes to dissociated personality, so-called multiple personality disorder usually comes to mind. Although this phenomenon is the main representative of one of the most severe forms of dissociation, there are other equally representative conditions.

For example, post-traumatic stress disorder or borderline personality disorder. Even healthy individuals can experience dissociative phenomena at very specific moments in their life .

What does dissociation consist of?

Dissociation is a mechanism whereby elements that are normally associated with each other disconnect. This phenomenon can involve perception, emotions, or identity and manifest itself in different ways.

To some extent non-pathological, we can all experience moments of dissociation in various circumstances, such as the following:

  • When we drive, we are absorbed in our thoughts and still reach our goals. We know it has been a while since we have been traveling. But our mind has removed everything that has happened in the meantime.
  • While carrying out an activity that absorbs our attention (for example, when painting or reading), it may happen that someone speaks to us, but we are unable to process the information even though we have listened to it.
  • When we receive shocking news, which causes strong anxiety, we may get to dissociate ourselves from our emotions or our context.

Dissociation, when it becomes pathological, is a defense mechanism against trauma and although it has the role of preserving the survival and functions of the species, it can cause various problems.

The theory of structural dissociation

The theory of structural dissociation, developed by the psychologist Onno van der Hart, tries to give a definition of the dissociation of the personality due to a traumatic event.

This model defends the existence of two personality systems that inhabit each individual and which are an integral part of healthy personalities:

  • The survival-oriented action system: nurtures proximity to pleasant, pleasant, and necessary stimuli. For example, it pushes us to feed, socialize, have fun, maintain our hygiene, or work.
  • Defense-oriented action: protects us from dangerous and unpleasant threats and situations. For example, it pushes us to confront those we don’t like, to flee from attackers, or to ask for help if we need it.

The two parts of the personality

Following a traumatic experience, these two systems dissociate and the personality begins to function by itself. In this way, two distinct parts of the personality emerge:

  • The apparently normal part (PAN), which has the task of guiding life as normal and functional as possible. To do this, the separation of the trauma and thus of everything associated with it takes place.

The individual may not have access to that type of memories or emotionally connect to them (talk about the trauma without feeling pain). In addition, he will often “phobically” avoid any stimulus, place, or situation that might remind him of what happened.

  • The Emotional Part (PE ): the one that bears the negative emotional weight and that has remained attached to the moment of trauma. Precisely for this reason, flashbacks and new episodes appear, the main objective of which is to remain vigilant in the face of possible new dangers. Therefore, this part is not functional in everyday life.

The different levels according to the theory of structural dissociation

Depending on the severity of the trauma, the time of life in which it is experienced, and other factors, different levels of dissociation can come into play :

Primary structural dissociation, characterized by the presence of a single PAN and a single PE. This level is typical of PTSD and other simple dissociative disorders.

In secondary structural dissociation, a single PAN and several PEs appear which have the task of carrying out various functions. For example, one PE can facilitate the fight and another the submission. This state is typical of severe post-traumatic stress disorder or borderline personality disorder due to trauma.

Finally, in the case of tertiary structural dissociation, several PANs and multiple PEs come into play. This is the highest level of dissociation and is typical of dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder).

Dissociation is the consequence

This theoretical model is useful for understanding the complex mechanisms that the mind puts into operation to deal with the traumatic event.

It reminds us that dissociation is not the problem. But the extreme consequence that is generated to defend oneself from extreme pain. Here the elaboration of that trauma (initial cause) must be the main purpose of the psychological intervention.

Jeffrey Wilson

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