Archive of ‘Trauma’ category

Dissociation: The Experiences of Disconnection

By: Susanna Wetherington, LPC-Intern Supervised by Lora Ferguson, LPC-S

By: Susanna Wetherington, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Lora Ferguson, LPC-S

Dissociation is a term and an experience often misunderstood. Today I’d like to talk to you about the basics of what dissociation is and the various degrees to which a person might experience it. Dissociation is defined by the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation as the disconnection, or lack of connection, between things usually associated with each other. What most do not realize is that most everyone dissociates to a small degree. Have you ever been reading a book and realized that you had to re-read a paragraph because you weren’t paying attention and missed the information? Have you ever driven to work or school, taking the route you always take, but if asked you couldn’t really detail the specifics (what cars you saw, how many stop signs you went through, etc) of the drive to another if they asked? The most common form of dissociation we experience is plain and simple “tuning out.” We go through the motions of an activity, but we are not really present. Especially when it comes to routine activities, we tend to go on a sort of autopilot because we have repeated the process over and over again. So, one part of our brain takes us through the necessary motions while other parts of our brain engage in daydreaming or thinking about a conversation we had earlier. We disconnect. Luckily, this minor form of dissociation is not likely to cause us much difficulty.

In more severe forms of dissociation, the disconnection interferes with a persons normal state of awareness and it can interfere or limit one’s sense of consciousness, identity, emotions, and memory. For example, a person may suddenly experience intense emotions with no obvious external trigger for those emotions. Then, for no apparent reason, the intense emotion is gone. Another example could be an individual may engage in behavior not typical for them, but are unable to stop the behavior. Individuals with these experiences describe feeling as if they are “taken over” by something else, as if they are a “passenger” in their own body. Some individuals may even have experiences or say things while in these states that they have no memory of later, whereas some may be conscious of the event but are unable to control their actions.

These more severe forms of dissociation usually occur as a defensive response to trauma and highly distressing events. It is truly amazing that our brain is able to protect us when faced with psychologically overwhelming events. However, the long-term effects of our brain’s protective measures can make it difficult for individuals to function adequately in the world. What once served as a defense ends up becoming problematic because of the often uncontrollable nature of severe dissociation.

Severe dissociation disrupts the way a person experiences living in 5 main ways: Amnesia, Depersonalization, derealization, identity alteration, and identity confusion. In Part 2 of this conversation I will discuss these areas in more detail and the ways in which dissociative disorders develop.

Thank you for taking the time to learn more about dissociation and stay tuned for the next chapter coming soon!




The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation –

Steinberg, M. (2008). In-Depth: Understanding Dissociative Disorders. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 20, 2015, from

Trauma and The Brain

I believe when helping individuals recover from traumatic events they have experienced the first step is to help them understand just how trauma affects the body. And it does indeed affect your whole body, specifically your brain. Today I’m going to talk about trauma and the brain and give a brief overview of what happens in your brain during and after a traumatic event. First I’d like to point out that the definition of trauma lies on a broad spectrum and that the experience of trauma is subjective. I think of trauma as a high level of emotional or mental distress, and what qualifies as a “high level” varies from person to person. Here is a simple definition of trauma by researchers Duros and Crowley (2014): Too much too fast, too much too long, or not enough for too long.

By: Susanna Wetherington, LPC-Intern Supervised by Lora Ferguson, LPC-S

By: Susanna Wetherington, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Lora Ferguson, LPC-S

When trauma is experienced, the body becomes dysregulated because some systems go “offline” in order to attend to the emergency at hand. This dysregulation of the nervous system results in distortion and fragmentation of memory, perception, beliefs and emotions (Van der Kolk). Lets get a closer look at how this happens. It is important to note that what I am going to explain happens reflexively, meaning we have no control of how the process unfolds. When information comes into the brain through the senses, that information is directed to the amygdala. The amygdala can be thought of as the brain’s “smoke detector,” constantly scanning (5 times a second, to be precise) for danger. It determines if any stimulus in the environment is dangerous. If danger is perceived, then the amygdala gets the nervous system going. The thalamus signals the brain stem to release norepinephrine, a stimulant, throughout the entire brain. The hypothalamus sends a signal to prompt the pituitary gland, which then signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and coritsol so the body can jump into action. When cortisol floods the brain, the hippocampus shuts down. This is important because the hippocampus is responsible for processing explicit memory – the parts of memory that can be explained with words, such as the where and when of an experience, visuals, sounds, and smells. The problem is that since this part of the brain shuts down these parts of the experience do not get processed along with implicit memory – the parts of memory that contain body sensations and emotions. Since these two parts of memory of the event are not processed together and thus stored separately, the experience of the traumatic event gets fragmented. So, when something in the environment triggers the physical sensations or emotions that were present during the trauma, there is no activation of the part of the memory (explicit) that indicates time and place. As far as the body and brain are concerned, there is currently a real and present danger and the body reacts accordingly. As you can imagine, this can be very difficult for the individual having this experience. You could be going through your day as you usually would, and then for no obvious reason you are experiencing panic, fear, anger or sadness. Some wonder if they are losing their mind because they don’t understand why this is happening! My hope is that in explaining what happens in the brain when a distressing event occurs, that relief can settle in because there is now an understanding that this is not “crazy” but a biological result of distress. Once you understand what is happening, you are much more able to address it with helpful techniques to calm down the nervous system.


Duros, P., & Crowley, D. (2014). The body comes to therapy too. Clinical Social Work Journal. doi:10.1007/s10615-014-0486-1

Van der Kolk, Bessel, MD., “The Body keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” Peguin Press Viking, New York, 2014

Myths About Domestic Violence: Part 4

If you have watched the news lately in Travis County, it was reported that a woman was killed by her boyfriend earlier this week, and that over the weekend a teen male held a shotgun to the neck of his girlfriend and threatened to kill her if she tried to break up with him again. It is clear that the epidemic of domestic violence is still on the rise, and with that truth I bring you the final part of my blog pertaining to myths about domestic violence. Stay tuned for future blogs on the subject – the discussion will not stop as long as the problem persists!

By: Susanna Wetherington, LPC-Intern Supervised by Lora Ferguson, LPC-S

By: Susanna Wetherington, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Lora Ferguson, LPC-S

Myth #12: He is afraid of intimacy and abandonment.

Jealousy and possessiveness are common traits of abusive men, and their destructive and coercive behaviors often escalate when their partners attempt to break up with them. This supports the statistic that the victim is 75% more likely to be seriously injured or killed after trying to leave or just after leaving or ending the relationship.

Myth #13: He hates women.

Many believe that abusive men are abusive toward women because they have had largely negative experiences with women in the past, such as having an abusive or overbearing mother. The truth is most abusers don’t hate women – the issue is they do not respect women. Their attitudes toward women fall on a spectrum from being able to interact fairly well with most women (as long as they are not intimately involved with them) to being staunch misogynists who treat most women they come across with superiority and contempt. These attitudes of disrespect tend to come from their culture of values and conditioning, rather than previous negative experiences with women. Research has actually shown that men with abusive mothers do not tend to develop negative attitudes towards women, but men with abusive fathers do – the disrespect shown by abusive men toward their female partners and their daughters is often absorbed and mimicked by their sons.

Myth #14: There are as many abusive women as abusive men.

It is true that there are women who treat their partners badly, from berating them to attempting to control them. However these instances are much less frequent and the instances of physical abuse, including physical intimidation and violence, and sexual abuse are even more rare. According to a report published by the National Institute of Justice, “women experience more intimate partner violence than do men,” with 22.1% of women surveyed reported they were physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabitating partner, boyfriend or date, as opposed to 7.4% of surveyed reporting the same.[1] The same report shows that the majority (64%) of women who were physically assaulted, raped and/or stalked since the age of 18 were victimized by men, specifically a current or former husband, co-habitating partner, boyfriend or date. It is important to note that men can be abused by other men and women can be abused by other women. The key aspects of verbal and emotional abuse, specifically using sarcasm, put-downs, twisting everything around on the other partner, and using other tactics of control, are seen in all abusive relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual.

Myth #15: His abusiveness is as bad for him as for his partner.

The perpetrators of abuse get over the pain of abusive incidents far faster than those they abuse. In fact, abusers often tend to benefit in many ways from their controlling behaviors. Abusers often outperform their victims on psychological tests, such as those given for custody disputes, because they have not been traumatized by the long-term psychological or physical assault they inflict on their victims. Thus, if his abusiveness were truly as bad for him as it is for his partner, you would see him display the same reactions of trauma.


[1] Tjaden, P. & Thoennes, N., (2000) Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey, National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

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