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Trauma Tuesday: PTSD and Disconnection from the Body

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By faitha - Posted on 12 April 2011

Traumatized Adopted Child (c) Julie C

I have been asked to write more blog entries specific to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because so many foster children and children adopted out of foster care have this diagnosis. So, my next several Trauma Tuesday and Trauma Thursday blog entries will deal with various aspects of PTSD. If you have any suggestions for a particular area of PTSD that you would like for me to address, please post your suggestion in the comments or send me an email.

Dissociation typically goes hand-in-hand with a PTSD diagnosis. Dissociation is the child’s ability to “check out” in his head when he is triggered or feeling unsafe in some manner. The more trauma the child experienced, the more dissociated or disconnected he is likely to feel from his body. This makes perfect sense – If you are regularly being beaten or raped, having the ability to “check out” of your body is a wonderfully adaptive way to keep your sanity when your body is being repeatedly harmed.

Sadly, this disconnection from the body can last for decades after the child abuse ends, and this disconnection can cause all sorts medical issues for the child. A great example of this is provided in Martha Stout’s book The Myth of Sanity.

One of Dr. Stout’s patients was so disconnected from her body that she had no idea that she was not feeling well. Throughout the day at work, people kept coming up to her asking if she was feeling OK. She was sweating profusely and was very pale. Despite this, she had no recognition that he body was in pain until her appendix ruptured, causing her to pass out at work.

My sister has a similar story. She had an abscessed tooth and was draining puss out of it every day before she finally went to see a doctor about it. The doctor immediately prescribed her pain medication because he was certain that she must be in an enormous amount of pain. She was surprised because, while having an abscessed tooth was “annoying,” she was unaware of being in pain from it.

If you are parenting a child with PTSD, keep an eye out for your child’s dissociation or disconnection from her body’s signals because she truly might not register that her body is in pain. This can also apply to being able to tell when she is hungry or full, when she needs to use the bathroom, etc. The more disconnected the foster or adopted child is from her body, the more help she is going to need from you to help her learn how to read her body’s signals.

Photo credit: JulieC