Dissociation as Self-Protection in Childhood Sexual Abuse


In accordance with the Facilities for Illness Management (CDC), 1 in 4 women and 1 in 13 boys are topic to sexual abuse throughout their childhood, though this quantity is regarded as underestimated attributable to an absence of reporting.

Childhood sexual abuse varies drastically in kind and diploma. In 91 % of circumstances, it’s a member of the family or a trusted good friend of the household that commits the abuse. Thus, not solely does the kid expertise an enormous overstep in bodily boundaries, there’s additionally an infinite break in belief, which may have long-lasting penalties for a way the kid builds and maintains relationships all through their lives.

A standard expertise amongst survivors of childhood sexual abuse is out-of-body experiences and dissociation, each throughout and after the abuse takes place. One particular person whom I interviewed for this text described their expertise like this: “I normally see myself and my actions from above or beside me, or simply really feel frozen and by no means current” (R.J., age 16, New York). They’re additionally extra prone to really feel as if their physique doesn’t belong to them. The perpetrator, or anybody, can do what they need with their physique, they usually emotionally disconnect themselves from their our bodies, such that “numerous the time I simply don’t care what occurs to my physique.”


What causes out-of-body experiences and dissociations?

Researchers nonetheless debate this, however one mind area has acquired appreciable consideration: the temporoparietal junction (TPJ)1,2. The TPJ resides proper the place the temporal lobe meets the parietal and occipital lobes, which makes the situation apt for multisensory integration. In different phrases, the TPJ integrates a number of sensory data that’s essential for forming and sustaining a way of the place you might be in house (additionally known as proprioception) and the way you understand what your physique seems to be like. Electrical stimulation of the TPJ in individuals present process mind surgical procedure results in altered physique perceptions (your arm or legs begin altering measurement) and out-of-body experiences. However it’s not simply concerning the TPJ. No mind area works alone, and the TPJ seems to work along with the insula and the cingulate cortex to set off dissociations and out-of-body experiences3.

The insula is of specific curiosity due to its function in interoception, that’s, the power to sense our physique. Ladies with histories of extreme childhood trauma have lowered physique consciousness, and have a tougher time attending to and figuring out inner sensations4. For instance, they could have a troublesome time telling if they’re feeling hungry, if they’re chilly, or even when they’re experiencing bodily ache. “When I’m on the hospital, I’m unable to ‘fee’ my ache. This incapacity is without doubt one of the causes my self-harm grew to become so unhealthy. I hurt my physique well beyond its limits” (RJ, age 16, New York). In circumstances like these, a affected person’s thoughts has actually separated from their physique.

Case research reveal that individuals with histories of sexual abuse are far more delicate to the Rubber Hand Phantasm: they discover the hand too actual, too shortly, triggering dissociation and depersonalization5. This possible occurs as a result of survivors of sexual abuse have a tougher time integrating sensory data from a number of sources (for instance imaginative and prescient, contact), triggering dissociation as a self-defense mechanism. This stands in distinction to individuals with different psychological diseases, similar to consuming issues (with no historical past of childhood sexual abuse) which might be extra prone to undertake the Rubber Hand as their very own with out dissociating. Whereas individuals with consuming issues even have alterations of their potential to combine a number of sources of sensory data, they don’t expertise dissociation throughout this experiment. This emphasizes how childhood sexual abuse can uniquely form an individual’s mind into disconnecting from their physique.

What are the implications of dissociation and out-of-body experiences?

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Whereas dissociating and out-of-body experiences are fascinating phenomena, they will have extreme penalties for a way individuals relate to their our bodies. A research discovered that girls with extreme childhood trauma report increased levels of unfavorable physique images4, together with disgust and disgrace about themselves.

This sense was echoed in my interviews: “I felt so disgusted about my physique and sexual elements. A lot in order that I bodily couldn’t eat” (Ok.P., age 34, Florida). Her self-disgust, a sensation arising from the insula, triggered a long-lasting consuming dysfunction.

One other affected person described how “my physique doesn’t match me” (R.J., age 16, New York). The childhood sexual abuse has not solely damaged a belief barrier, however it additionally modified the way in which their brains perceived themselves. As an alternative of understanding themselves as a whole particular person, they dissociated their thoughts and physique. Their thoughts grew to become theirs, whereas their physique belonged to the perpetrator(s).

Shifting this angle, and re-integrating your thoughts and physique takes a few years of labor and plenty of help. However it isn’t unimaginable. “I not really feel disgrace about what occurred. I’ve advised everybody that cares about me, they usually love me in any case” (Ok.P., age 34, Florida). This was a transferring sentence from a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and it goes to indicate how internalized the sentiments of disgrace and disgust can grow to be. As an alternative of blaming the perpetrator, youngsters typically blame themselves. They consider themselves as having disgusting and shameful our bodies, with penalties for a way they develop new relationships, course of feelings, and understand themselves. It’s not stunning, due to this fact, that individuals with childhood sexual abuse usually tend to develop consuming issues, physique dysmorphia, and different types of body-related psychological illnesses4.