Introduction to The Language of Dissociative Hypoarousal

Introduction to The Language of Dissociative Hypoarousal

Photo by Erik Eastman on Unsplash

Editor's Note: This article discusses reactions to trauma and may be triggering for some readers.

When I was a graduate student, I got into the habit of putting on a movie to help make cleaning my apartment more palatable. I often chose something light, like a romantic comedy. One of these, 1995's French Kiss, starred Kevin Kline as Luc and Meg Ryan as Kate. There is one exchange I think about often, especially when someone marvels about how other people think or act in ways different from theirs.

Kate: Did you know that there are four hundred and fifty-two official government cheeses in [France]? Don’t you think that’s incredible? To come up with four hundred and fifty-two ways of classifying what is basically a bacterial process?”

Luc: You would prefer one cheese? One cheeseburger to put it on and one restaurant to eat it in? 

Kate: I'm saying I like it!

Diversity makes life interesting and rich. I find it fascinating to read about differences in brain scans and nervous systems of people who experience dissociative hypoarousal. But I’ve quickly learned that not everyone else feels that way. It can feel upsetting and disturbing for trauma survivors to hear that their bodies may be different than “normal.” It can tap into a feeling that many trauma survivors already have – that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. One of the things I want to emphasize about dissociative hypoarousal is that it’s not bad, just different

Helena Fox, the author of how it feels to float, a novel about dissociative hypoarousal, writes:

“I carry with me complex PTSD, anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder, and clinical depression. I walk with these things, but they do not define me. I live with, and beyond them.” 

Even though I would not wish trauma on anyone, I am constantly impressed by survivors’ resilience and deep empathy for others. Trauma energy can be turned into powerful expressions of creativity and philanthropy. That being said, I strongly encourage anyone who finds any part of this blog too painful to be gentle with themselves. There is no shame in setting it aside or skipping to a different section of interest.

The first step in healing from trauma can be gaining a cognitive understanding of it. The challenge is that unlike other aspects of trauma, we lack language for dissociative hypoarousal. What is happening when we experience feelings of numbness or fogginess? How can we describe it in a way that makes sense to our friends and loved ones?

In the next few articles, I share some of the current terms used to help survivors understand dissociative hypoarousal. I discuss concepts including the window of tolerance, biphasic response, The PolyVagal Theory and animal/human defense strategies. Next, I focus on the fragmentation aspect of dissociation with a discussion of parts. I also provide a more comprehensive descirption of both cognitive and somatic alterations of consciousness due to trauma. I end with disscussions of shame and emotional hijacking. 

The content of this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any condition or disease. This blog is not intended as a substitute for consultation with a licensed practitioner. Please consult with your own therapist or healthcare provider regarding any suggestions and/or recommendations made in this blog. Although the author has made every effort to ensure that the information in this blog was correct at publication time and while this publication is designed to provide accurate information in regard to the subject mater covered, the author assumes no responsibility for errors, inaccuracies, omissions, or any other inconsistencies herein and hereby disclaim any liability to any party for any loss, damage, or disruption caused by errors or omissions. Unless otherwise indicated by name or direct reference, any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. The use of this blog implies your acceptance of this disclaimer. 

The following sources were invaluable in writing the above article:

Fox, H. (2019). how it feels to float. Penguin Books, Random House. 

Kasdan, L. (Director) (1995). French Kiss. [Film] Working Title Films, Prufrock Pictures.

© Nancy B. Sherrod, PhD

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