Dissociation in Trauma: New Definition and Comparison

Dissociation in Trauma:
A New Definition and Comparison with Previous Formulations

Ellert Nijenhuis, Ph.D.
Onno van het Hart, Ph.D.ELLERT R. S. NIJENHUIS, PhD

Top Referent Trauma Center, Mental Health Care Drenthe, Assen,
The Netherlands

ONNO VAN DER HART, PhD

Department of Clinical and Health Psychology, Utrecht University,
Utrecht, The Netherlands

Published online: 10 Jun 2011

A New Definition and Comparison with Previous Formulations

THE PROPOSED DEFINITIONtandonline

The definition, which is not self-evident, reads as follows:

Dissociation in trauma entails a division of an individual’s personality, that is, of the dynamic, biopsychosocial system as a whole that determines his or her characteristic mental and behavioral actions.

This division of personality constitutes a core feature of trauma. It evolves when the individual lacks the capacity to integrate adverse experiences in part or in full, can support adaptation in this context, but commonly also implies adaptive limitations. The division involves two or more insufficiently integrated dynamic but excessively stable subsystems. These subsystems exert functions and can encompass any number of different mental and behavioral actions and implied states. These subsystems and states can be latent or activated in a sequence or in parallel. Each dissociative subsystem, that is, dissociative part of the personality, minimally includes its own at least rudimentary first-person perspective. As each dissociative part, the individual can interact with other dissociative parts and other individuals, at least in principle. Dissociative parts maintain particular psychobiological boundaries that keep them divided but that they can in principle dissolve. Phenomenologically, this division of the personality manifests in dissociative symptoms that can be categorized as negative (functional losses such as amnesia and paralysis) or positive (intrusions such as flashbacks or voices) and psychoform (symptoms such as amnesia, hearing voices) or somatoform (symptoms such as anesthesia or tics).


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