Trauma-related structural dissociation of the personality

Ellert Nijenhuis, Onno van der Hart, Kathy Steele


Many traumatized individuals alternate between re-experiencing their trauma and being detached from, or even relatively unaware of the trauma and its effects. At first sight one may be inclined to conceptualize detachment from trauma and re-experiencing of trauma as mental states. However, on closer scrutiny it becomes apparent that in both cases a range or cluster of states rather than a singular state is involved. For example, being detached from trauma does not itself exclude being joyful, ashamed, sexually aroused, or curious at times, and re-experiencing trauma can encompass states such as fleeing, freezing, and being in pain or being analgesic. In this paper we relate detachment from trauma and re-experiencing trauma to emotional operating systems (Panksepp, 1998) and functional systems (Fanselow & Lester, 1988), briefly addressed as action systems. Action systems control a range of functions, but some are more complex than others. Reexperiencing trauma will be associated with the inborn and evolutionary derived defensive system that is evoked by severe threat, in particular threat to the integrity of the body. As a complex system, it encompasses various subsystems, such as flight, freeze, and fight. Detachment from trauma, in our view, is associated with several action systems (Panksepp, 1998), i.e., the ones that control functions in daily life (e.g., exploration of the environment, energy control), and the ones that are dedicated to survival of the species (e.g., reproduction, attachment to and care for offspring). In this context we will maintain that severe threat may provoke a structural dissociation of the premorbid personality (Van der Hart, 2000). In its primary form this dissociation is between the defensive system on one hand, and the systems that involve managing daily life and survival of the species on the other hand. To summarize the essence of the theory of structural dissociation of the personality, we argue (1) that traumatic experiences, especially when they occur early in life and involve severe threat to the integrity of the body, may activate psychobiological action systems that have been developed by evolution, and (2) that due to extreme stress levels and classical as well as evaluative conditioning to traumatic memories these systems may remain unintegrated to varying degrees.

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