Sexual abuse victims experience post-traumatic stress throughout their lives. For many, these experiences are heavy with confusion and their natural impulse is to dissociate. Dissociation is a separation that individuals experience in their state of being; a person’s mental detachment from their environment. Dissociative events can be momentary, or they can be long lasting.
Many sexual abuse victims, especially those who were abused as children, become confused about their experience. This is due to the detaching nature of dissociation, which may create a fuzzier memory for the victim. They may even question whether the event took place, and their confusion may explain why some victims do not come forward about their abuse – even as adults.
This suggests that while dissociation can help victims tolerate the trauma, it may also negatively affect their ability to process it throughout their life. In fact, many adults do not recognize the abusive nature of their experience until they are well into adulthood.
How dissociation may look
There are three major dissociation categories.
• Identity alteration relates to a change in personality or perception. For some, it may look like a detachment from thoughts. For others, it could mean an entire change in identity—such as in cases of dissociative identity disorder.
• Affect/information compartmentalization is the term for when the mind blocks a traumatic event. Child victims will “isolate explicit knowledge” of their experience and essentially separate from their own awareness of it.
• Behavior automization relates to the redirection of knowledge of an event. But in this case the automization allows repeated abuse to be pushed from conscious awareness.
Regardless of how victims may experience their dissociation in relation to trauma, it may help them to know that it is normal for those suffering from post-traumatic stress.
If you or a loved one are victims of sexual abuse—whether as an adult or a child—consider seeking help from a trained professional in therapy or psychiatry. They can help you better understand the ways the abuse impacts your life.