CSA, Memory and Dissociation

Ibbotson, Karen; Memory I
‘Memory I’ by Karen Ibbotson, Gallery Oldham

During my research it has become clear that people who have experienced CSA do not know about advances in CSA research. This is no fault of theirs but instead reflects how taboo the subject is. Nobody talks about it but lots of people experience it. I want to share up to date information about CSA research and the first topic is memories.

Dissociation

Traumatic experiences are difficult for the person to experience. Animals sometimes freeze when they cannot escape a situation. Humans are no different. It is common for the individual to dissociate and attempt to mentally leave the situation. Dissociation is defined by MIND as ‘an experience where you feel disconnected in some way from the world around you or from yourself.’ During the traumatic incident the person might enter an altered sense of reality, detached from the self and time. Children are more likely to dissociate so people who have experience childhood sexual abuse frequently experience this. What does this mean for them as an adult?

Memory Gaps

Amnesia is common following dissociation, as this state might affect how memory is stored. The person may struggle to recall facts about the incident(s) or even that it took place at all. It does seem however that emotions and sensations around the event(s) are retained, which means that someone can feel fear, for example, without remembering why. Many people find memories returning later, often in adulthood.

PTSD and other Conditions

Dissociation raises the risk of long term conditions such as Complex-PTSD. With C-PTSD things that remind the person of the traumatic experience (triggers) lead to a re-experiencing of that event. This does not necessarily mean a complete flashback but can mean the re-experiencing of emotions as described above. There is further information about C-PTSD here on the NHS site.

There are other dissociative conditions such as Dissociative Identity Disorder, see the MIND link here, that are again tied to early trauma.

To sum up memory gaps and even total amnesia is common in people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. It is a consequence of the body trying to deal with an traumatic experience. C-PTSD is also common and may be, in part, a consequence of that dissociation.

References:

Scaer, R.C., 2001. The Neurophysiology of Dissociation & Chronic Disease. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 26(1), pp.73–91.

Van der Kolk, B., 2014. The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, London: Viking.

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