In 2015, a study was conducted by Dr. Colin A. Ross, a psychiatrist specializing in dissociative disorders, to measure the hippocampal volumes of healthy brains versus brains of persons who had been through trauma. The findings revealed no difference in volume between the two groups.
What does it mean and why is this important?
Prolonged exposure to trauma both in childhood and adulthood, such as in a relationship with a narcissist, tends to cause a shrinkage in the hippocampus and an enlargement of the amygdala. This is because the brain protects itself from negative memories by discarding them (smaller hippocampus) and instead relegating its energy and resources to keeping us on guard (larger amygdala) in the event we need to fight or flee.
A relationship with a narcissist or a psychopath is one which requires us, whether we are consciously aware of this or not, to dwell in a state of constant vigilance. Children living in abusive homes are especially vulnerable to this. While their young brain develops, it is put under significant stress due to repeated adrenal stimulation.
The distinct feature of abuse is the swing between kindness and cruelty. An abuser can be sweet one moment, only to do a 180 flip and become outright mean the next. The body (unconscious mind) knows this and over time gets used to the idea of having to be on guard 24/7. Even in moments of calm, the brain learns to anticipate the next wave or violence, whether verbal, emotional or physical.
Children who grew up in abusive families, know first-hand the challenge of fighting or fleeing their circumstance. Standing up to the mighty parent-god is out of the question. With one blow, they could crush them into powder. Fleeing is also a bad option.
What option remains? An escape. . . inward.
What is dissociation?
In psychology, dissociation occurs on continuum and ranges ‘from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience.’ (Source: Wikipedia.) Once confused with schizophrenia, it is characterized not by loss of reality, but rather a degree of disconnection from it.
Dissociation typically begins to manifest in childhood. It is a coping mechanism that allows the child’s mind, not body, to withdraw from an abusive circumstance. According to the findings in Dr. Ross’ study, it has a neuroprotective function, preventing the brain’s memory centers from atrophying and causing brain damage.
This makes sense given the fact that the brains of children, and adults, who dissociate remain active. In this respect, dissociation differs from repression. While in the latter case information moves vertically — is pushed down, or suppressed, moving into the subconscious domain — in the case of dissociation, it moves horizontally into a different area of the brain, taking an altered form. This mirrors what happens in the moment. Instead of having to directly deal with an oppressive situation, which is beyond any child’s capacity regardless of their desire to help quell the heat, it is the mind of the person that moves elsewhere.
Research findings such as those from a study, conducted in 2015 looking at the relation between creativity, dissociation and sleep, seem to demonstrate that regular exposure to abuse that precipitates dissociative states can set up a fertile ground for the development of imagination, fantasy and even creativity. The fashioning of imaginary friends, therefore, is more than just a game with the self. It is a coping mechanism conjured by the brain to soothe the child’s pain by turning their attention away from what is happening.
How dissociation can hurt us
The tendency to dissociate can certainly have detrimental repercussions in relationships with narcissists, psychopaths, and other toxic, exploitive and manipulative characters. The targets of abuse tend to comprise of people have been trained from childhood how to ignore, overlook and even excuse abusive behavior by retreating inwards.
For such people, when in the company of a covert aggressive loved one, it becomes easy to ignore the red flags. Maybe it was an inconsistency of their story, maybe a certain blank stare that sent a chill down the spine, or a dig spoken with the aim to undermine our self-esteem. Even though such things are picked up, they immediately get swept under the rug.
Manipulators have a knack at building people up temporarily, until their targets have been ‘hooked’ on the flattery, only to then begin the denigration campaign. The sweet brain washing makes the people with dissociative tendencies want to dismiss harmful actions by omission or denial. Sensing pain, much the way it was done in their early years, they take their mind to a land of beauty and pleasure, to escape the growing angst. It is my supposition that the narcissist is somehow aware of this and has a way of upping the game by inserting themselves in that fantasy world. This furthers the target’s belief that the abuser is their soul mate, strengthening the bond.
Ignoring our present moment hunches of oncoming harm is one of the most detrimental effects of dissociation. This is why in recovery, and especially in the process of breaking the trauma bond, it is essential to practice mindfulness, or being here and now. It trains us to return our distracted minds to the present moment and helps cut the cords of illusion and programming that have kept us stuck in a wishful thinking trance state, which the abuser, as well as other manipulative people and exploitive systems, continually exploit.
The Silver Lining
Besides acting as a neuroprotective mechanism and essentially saving our brain volume, dissociation fuels the brain’s ability to generate something out of nothing. People with this tendency tend to have a rich imagination and an almost innate ability to see things from unique perspectives — a key component of creative problem solving.
Left to itself, dissociation will continue running in the background of our minds prompting us to fade in and out of reality. It is a vulnerability that hijacks the second most precious currency we possess besides time — our attention. Learning to recover our attention in the process of healing by dissolving cognitive dissonance with truth and aligning our thoughts with our feelings and actions, we can learn to harness the creative faculties we have developed. This will take time and much effort, but it can serve as a tool to help us find a way out of the woods.
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