Dissociation and Complex PTSD
This is a prepublication version of the version published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2005, 18(5).
Dissociation: An Insufficiently Recognized Major
Feature of Complex PTSD
Onno van der Hart
Department of Clinical Psychology, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
Ellert R.S. Nijenhuis
Cats-Polm Institute, Zeist and Mental Health Care, Assen, The Netherlands
Metropolitan Psychotherapy Associates Atlanta, Georgia
Onno van der Hart, Ph.D., Department of Clinical Psychology, Utrecht University
Heidelberglaan 1, 3584 CS Utrecht, the Netherlands
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The role of dissociation in (complex) PTSD has been insufficiently recognized for at least two reasons:
the view that dissociation is a peripheral, not a central feature of PTSD, and existing confusion regarding
the nature of dissociation. This conceptual paper addresses both issues by postulating that traumatization
essentially involves some degree of division or dissociation of psychobiological systems that constitute
personality. One or more dissociative parts of the personality avoid traumatic memories and perform
functions in daily life, while one or more other parts remain fixated in traumatic experiences and
defensive actions. Dissociative parts manifest in negative and positive dissociative symptoms that
should be distinguished from alterations of consciousness. Complex PTSD involves a more complex
structural dissociation than simple PTSD.
KEY WORDS: Complex PTSD; DESNOS; Dissociative Symptoms; Structural Dissociation; Personality
Dissociation and Complex PTSD
Dissociation: An Insufficiently Recognized Major Feature of Complex PTSD
The alternation between and coexistence of reexperiencing traumatizing events and avoidance of
reminders of the trauma are hallmarks of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; APA, 1994). In accord
with original 19th century understandings (e.g., Janet, 1889; cf. Van der Hart & Dorahy, in press), some
authors regard this bi-phasic pattern as a manifestation of a trauma-related structural dissociation or
division of the personality. In this paper we will present what some believe to be the most parsimonious
theoretical perspective: All trauma-related disorders (i.e., Acute Stress Disorder [ASD], PTSD, complex
PTSD, and Dissociative Disorders) share a common central psychobiological pathology that is
dissociative (e.g., Brewin, 2003; Chu, 1998; Nijenhuis & Van der Hart, 1999a; Spiegel, Hunt, &
Dondershine, 1988; Van der Kolk & Van der Hart, 1989). However, others believe that dissociation is
only one of many PTSD symptom clusters, one that plays a small role in PTSD and related disorders,
with the exception of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, APA, 1994) (e.g., Brett, 1996).
Based on research and clinical experience, a number of authors proposed a specific diagnostic
category called complex PTSD (Herman, 1992) or disorders of extreme stress not otherwise specified
(DESNOS; Pelcovitz et al., 1997; Roth et al., 1997) for patients suffering from a range of persistent
symptom clusters more complicated than those of PTSD. In DSM-IV, some of these clusters are
included under the descriptive features and mental disorders associated with PTSD (APA, 1994), and are
commonly associated with prolonged interpersonal stressors. These symptoms constellations involve
enduring personality changes characterized by a wide range of alterations in regulation of affect and
impulses, attention or consciousness, self-perception, perception of the perpetrator, relationships,
systems of meaning, and somatization (Herman, 1992; Pelcovitz et al., 1997; Roth et al., 1997; Van der
Kolk et al., 1996; Van der Kolk et al., this issue).
It is difficult to determine whether “dissociation” is a central feature in complex PTSD and other
trauma-related disorders because there is not uniform agreement on what constitutes the construct. The
current use of the term is highly confusing (cf., Marshall, Spitzer, & Liebowitz, 1999). For example,
some PTSD intrusive symptoms are referred to as “dissociative flashback episodes” (APA, 1994, p.
428), while the same flashbacks are not described as dissociative in ASD. The PTSD diagnosis does not
consider avoidant or numbing symptoms to be dissociative, but in ASD these very symptoms are labeled
dissociative (APA, 1994, p. 432). In the trauma literature at large, there are debates about whether or not
dissociation is dimensional or a taxon, and which symptoms should be included under the rubric of
dissociation. In relation to dissociation and trauma-related disorders in general, and complex PTSD
specifically, we thus briefly introduce a theory regarding the processes and manifestations of
dissociation that recommends a way to clarify this conceptual problem.
As part of this theory, we will define the term “personality;” describe the induction of structural
dissociation of the personality during traumatizing events; illustrate the characteristics of parts of the
personality that are dissociated to some extent from each other, and are fixed in enduring maladaptive
behaviors and ways of perceiving, and in avoidance or reexperiencing; describe levels of complexity of
this structural dissociation; and discuss the scope of dissociative symptoms stemming from structural
dissociation, and distinguish them from what we consider to be related but non-dissociative phenomena.
Finally, we analyze a number of symptom clusters of the proposed diagnostic category of complex
PTSD/DESNOS in terms of structural dissociation of the personality, proposing that they all potentially
Trauma-Related Structural Dissociation of the Personality
Along with many others in the field of trauma, we regard “trauma” as a subjective response of
an individual, not the quality of an event. Thus, we consider only those who have developed at least
substantial symptoms of trauma-related disorders over the course of their lives to be traumatized.
Traumatization involves a loss of the pretraumatic personality structure in adults, and interferes with the
development of a cohesive and coherent personality structure in children. In other words, traumatization
Dissociation and Complex PTSD
consists of some degree of division of the personality. Allport (1961) defines personality as: “The
dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysiological systems [italics added] that
determine his characteristic behavior and thought” (p. 28). Based on evolutionary psychology, ethology,
attachment theory, and affective and cognitive neuroscience, we propose that these psychophysiological
systems of the personality constitute the foundation for trauma-related structural dissociation of the
Action Systems and Personality
Human behavior is governed to a substantial degree by evolutionary prepared, psychobiological
systems (e.g., Panksepp, 1998; Toates, 1986). These innate psychophysiological systems structure the
personality to a large degree, and organize and regulate major functions in terms of attention, emotion,
(neuro)physiology, and, above all, behavior (Davis, Panksepp, & Normansell, 2003; Panksepp, 1998).
Their purpose is to direct adaptive mental and behavioral action across a wide range of life situations,
thus we call them action systems.
Action systems become available over the course of development, and require maturation and
good-enough experience for maximal functioning. In early traumatization, action systems may evolve
with a dysfunctional organization that persists even when life improves (e.g., Marvin & Britner, 1999).
Such maladaptive organizations are exemplified by various insecure attachments within the attachment
action system (e.g., Ainsworth, Velar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Maladaptive action patterns inhibit
coordination and integration among different action systems, leaving them without equilibrated
organization (cf, Marvin & Britner, 1999), and thus vulnerable to dissociation.
Some action systems mediate mental and behavioral actions concerning daily life, and include
exploration of the environment (including work and study), play, energy management (sleeping and
eating), attachment, sociability, reproduction, and care taking (especially rearing children) (e.g.,
Cassidy, 1999; Panksepp, 1998). Other actions systems are dedicated to defensive actions in response to
threat (by another person) to the integrity of the body, social rejection, and attachment loss. This
defensive action system, which human beings share with many animals, involves several subsystems:
Hypervigilance, freeze, flight, fight, total submission (Fanselow & Lester, 1988; Misslin, 2003), and
some forms of social submission (Gilbert, 2000). Recuperation follows survival of attack, and is
characterized by rest and isolation, wound care, and gradual return to daily activities. Ideally, both
integration and differentiation evolve among action systems, and among action tendencies within each
action system. But in the case of trauma-related structural dissociation of the personality, the
coordination and cohesion of actions systems appears to be disrupted, so that survivors’ actions are not
well adapted to prevailing circumstances.
Action Systems and Traumatization
The activities of normal life are generally incompatible with those of immediate defense, and
visa versa. Thus, action systems of daily life tend to be inhibited during threat (e.g., Cassidy, 1999).
However, there must also be some integration between defense and other action systems to create a
cohesive personality, including a continuous sense of self. An individual’s capacity to integrate these
systems, and subsequently to regulate affects and impulses, strongly depends on good–enough parenting
and secure attachment (Schore, 2003).
Our hypothesis is that integration between defensive and daily life action systems will fail first
and most readily in a context of extreme stress that reduces integrative capacity. This integrative failure
basically manifests in the prototypical alternations between functioning in daily life with
avoidance/numbing (daily life action systems), and reexperiencing (defense action systems). We also
hypothesize that survivors may develop a phobia of reexperiencing if they do not integrate these
Dissociation and Complex PTSD
intrusive and intense trauma-related memories. This phobia sustains ongoing dissociation of daily life
and defensive action systems.
Chronic childhood abuse and neglect compromise integrative capacity and the development of
secure attachment. When primary attachment figures are the source of threat in daily life, action systems
are not only unregulated in the child, but may compete with and disrupt one another. The insoluble
dilemma of a threatening caretaker often leads to the development of disorganized/disoriented
attachment in children (Main & Morgan, 1996), which is strongly linked to dissociation (e.g., Carlson,
1998; Ogawa, Sroufe, Weinfeld, Carlson, & Egeland, 1997). In our view, disorganized attachment may
be not actually disorganized, nor disoriented, but rather appears to involve concurrent or successive
activation of the attachment action system and the defense action system (Marvin & Britner, 1999).
Based on theoretical analysis, clinical observations, and some research findings (e.g., Kluft &
Fine, 1993; Nijenhuis, Van der Hart, & Steele, 2002; Putnam, 1997; Reinders et al., 2003, submitted;
Steinberg, 1995), as well as on 19th and early 20th century literature on dissociation (cf., Van der Hart &
Dorahy, in press), we propose that traumatization essentially involves a degree of dissociative division
of the personality that likely occurs along the lines of innate action systems of daily life and defense—
what has been called structural dissociation of the personality (e.g., Nijenhuis et al., 2002; Van der Hart,
Nijenhuis, Steele, & Brown, 2004). Dissociation of the personality develops when children or adults are
exposed to potentially traumatizing events, and when their integrative capacity is insufficient to (fully)
integrate these experiences within the confines of a relatively coherent personality.
Dissociation as a division of the personality is reflected in Janet’s (1907) original definition of
hysteria as “a form of mental depression [i.e., lowered integrative capacity] characterized by the
retraction of the field of consciousness and a tendency to the dissociation and emancipation of the
systems of ideas and functions that constitute personality” (p. 332). Janet (1889) observed that these
dissociative “systems of ideas and functions” involved particular behaviors, cognitions, affects,
sensorimotor aspects, and memories, and they experienced their own sense of self, however
rudimentary. We suggest that these “systems of ideas and functions” typically involve dissociated action
systems or subsystems that constitute parts of the personality.
Action (sub)systems shape personality to a large extent, and thus also sense of self. Each action
system “change[s] sensory, perceptual and cognitive processing, and initiate[s] a host of physiological
changes that are naturally synchronized with the aroused behavioral tendencies characteristic of [that
system]” (Panksepp, 1998, p. 49). Over time, if (components of) action systems are not adequately
cohesive and coordinated, they may each develop into more or less separate and habituated ways of
perceiving and functioning, i.e., dissociative parts of the personality. These dissociative parts involve at
the least a very rudimentary sense of self: “I feel; I think; I see; I run” even though clinically they may
present more like symptom complexes than as clear cut “dissociative identities.” Structural dissociation
of the personality implies that two or more dissociative parts are dissociated from each other to a
relative extent, as the original definition of dissociation intended. The degree of dissociation may be in
flux from time to time, and may involve much less developed divisions in some patients than in others,
but it is illogical to conclude that one part can be dissociated from the other without the reverse also
being true. However, the fact that patients do not incessantly re-experience traumatizing events and
some are not symptomatic for a period of time following a traumatizing event, e.g., delayed PTSD
(APA, 1994) indicates that dissociative parts may remain latent, as clinical observations confirm.
Levels of Structural Dissociation
For purposes of heuristic and diagnostic clarity, we distinguish three prototypical levels of
structural dissociation, although in clinical reality it seems to occur more along a continuum. The first
Dissociation and Complex PTSD
level begins with the most basic division between the two categories of daily life and defense action
systems. Subsequent prototypes involve increasing dissociation within each of these categories, first
among defense subsystems, and finally, the most severe dissociation additionally involves divisions
among daily life systems.
When we speak of parts of the personality that are fixed in defense and reexperiencing the
trauma, we are implying that these parts contain traumatic memories. Such memories are to be
distinguished from autobiographical narrative memory in that they are primarily somatosensory,
intensely emotional, hallucinatory, fragmentary, and involuntary experiences (e.g., Brewin, 2003; Van
der Kolk & Van der Hart, 1991). Brewin has termed these situationally accessible memories (SAM),
which cannot be accessed intentionally, but instead are triggered by reactivating stimuli. Traumatic
memories or SAM are far different from mere mood states or affect laden memories, and they involve a
different sense of self than does autobiographical narrative memory. As with all memory, SAM exist
within an individual’s personality, but may be sequestered in a dissociative part of the personality prior
Primary structural dissociation.
The basic pattern of posttraumatic stress response can be described as an alternation between a
single dissociative part of the personality mediated by action systems of daily life and a second (rather
limited and rudimentary) part mediated by defense. When the major dissociative part of traumatized
individuals is detached from the trauma and mediated by action systems of daily life, the individual can
seem rather undisturbed and able to lead a (relatively) normal life. However, this normality is only
apparent, because this part of the personality physically and mentally avoids trauma-related cues,
including his or her intrapsychic world, resulting in life “lived on the surface of consciousness”
(Appelfeld, 1994, p. 18). Parts fixated in action systems of defense tend to intrude or become dominant
when the individual is confronted with major threat cues.
Paraphrasing a metaphor developed by Myers (1940) that described trauma-induced alternations
in World War I combat soldiers, we speak of the Apparently Normal Part of the Personality (ANP) to
denote a traumatized person’s functioning largely mediated by actions systems of daily life. Likewise,
the Emotional Part of the Personality (EP) is adopted from Myers’ description of how vehement
emotions become dominant when trauma is reexperienced. EP is largely mediated by action systems of
defense and by particular modes of attachment that reduce a sense of threat. ANP and EP alternate with
each other, or are activated in parallel fashion. They generally share a range of features, and they may
interact. Uncomplicated forms of trauma-related disorders such as ASD, simple PTSD, simple
dissociative amnesia, and simple somatoform dissociative disorders are likely characterized by primary
Secondary structural dissociation.
Dissociation of the personality beyond a single ANP and EP may extend to additional
dividedness among two or more defensive subsystems. We conceptualize this additional division of EP
as secondary structural dissociation. Patients with complex PTSD often have several EPs fixed in
attachment cry (the sad, bereft part, sometimes experienced as a “child”), avoidance of social rejection
(the socially submissive "happy" part), and physical and relational defense (angry, fearful, submissive,
frozen parts, etc.), with a single complex ANP influenced by the action systems of daily living.
However, the action systems of daily living may also be organized maladaptively, as noted previously,
contributing to persistent charaterological problems and problems in daily living. Secondary structural
dissociation may characterize more complex and chronic trauma-related disorders, such as complex
PTSD/DESNOS, trauma-related personality disorder (Golynkina & Ryle, 1999), and many cases of
dissociative disorder NOS.
Dissociation and Complex PTSD
Tertiary structural dissociation.
Additional division of the ANP and elaboration of EPs is called tertiary structural dissociation,
which characterizes DID. This occurs when the integrative capacity of individual is too low to develop
or maintain a single ANP. Thus, there can be, for example, a dissociative part that is sexual
(reproduction), a part that is a mother (caretaking), a part that goes to work (exploration). EPs assimilate
new experiences and become more elaborated when inescapable aspects of daily life become
conditioned stimuli that reactivate traumatic memories (Janet, 1889; Nijenhuis & Van der Hart, 1999a).
Although some—but not all--dissociative parts in DID possess a stronger sense of separateness, we
propose that conceptually they are no different than the parts found in less complex trauma-related
disorders that present as symptom complexes.
In conclusion, it is reasonable to hypothesize that trauma-related dissociation essentially
involves the existence of two divided, yet certainly not totally separated or unrelated parts of the
personality--each with its own sense of self, each based on action systems, and having dynamic
relationships with other parts. In simple trauma disorders, EPs are typically quite rudimentary, not active
in daily life, and limited to traumatic reexperiences, while ANPs are quite complex, with multifaceted
functioning. In more complex trauma disorders, EPs may be increasingly elaborated and autonomous,
while ANPs can be more numerous and restricted to functions within certain daily life action systems.
Structural Dissociation and Alterations of Consciousness
In order to examine the dissociative nature of any disorder—in this case, complex PTSD, the
concept of dissociation must have sufficient clarity. Trauma-related structural dissociation should be
distinguished from more ubiquitous phenomena that are often termed dissociation, but likely have a
different underlying process. Over the past several decades the original meaning of dissociation has been
quite extended by the addition of other phenomena not typically considered to be dissociative. These
include alterations in consciousness such as absorption, daydreaming, imaginative involvement, altered
time sense, trance-like behavior, and “highway hypnosis” (e.g., Bernstein & Putnam, 1986). Although
narrowing and lowering of consciousness often accompany structural dissociation (Nijenhuis et al.,
1996; Vanderlinden et al., 1993), these alterations include a wide range of experiences and symptoms
that are ubiquitous among normal and clinical populations (e.g., Carlson, 1994), and do not always
indicate the existence of dissociative parts of the personality. However, structural dissociation—the
existence of two or more insufficiently integrated parts of the personality--seems to be highly specific
for traumatized populations. Thus, structural dissociation and alterations in consciousness appear to be
conceptually different but related phenomena, a position supported by some research findings (e.g.,
Waller, Putnam, & Carlson, 1996).
It may be difficult to distinguish the different underlying processes of the same phenomena, e.g.,
amnesia. However, it is essential to do so, as treatment approaches will differ (Allen, Console, & Lewis,
1999; Butler et al., 1996). For example, it is unproductive to help a patient recall lost time in childhood
if s/he never memorized events, but it is essential to resolve amnesia related to dissociative parts of the
personality via integration.
Symptoms of Structural Dissociation
In order to develop an understanding of the dissociative nature of complex PTSD, it is important
to consider the relationship between dissociative symptoms and the underlying structural dissociation of
the personality. The existence of both positive and negative dissociative symptoms has been recognized
in the past, but this fact seems to have become lost recently (cf., Nijenhuis & Van der Hart, 1999b; Van
der Hart, Van Dijke, Van Son, & Steele, 2000). However, research shows that many more phenomena
can be considered dissociative than is indicated in DSM-IV (e.g., Dell, 1998).
Dissociation and Complex PTSD
Negative dissociative symptoms of PTSD and complex PTSD generally relate to the ANP: They
constitute losses of function or phenomena. Positive symptoms generally relate to the EP: They
constitute intrusion phenomena. However, EPs that submit under threat also have negative symptoms
such as bodily anesthesia. Many (negative) dissociative symptoms mentioned as such in the literature
(e.g., highway hypnosis), are actually alterations in consciousness. A few contemporary authors have
noted the existence of positive dissociative symptoms (e.g., Butler et al., 1996; Nijenhuis & Van der
Hart, 1999a,b; Van der Hart et al., 2000), but most have not (e.g., Harvey & Bryant, 1999; Marshall et
symptoms, or as bodily phenomena, i.e., somatoform dissociative symptoms (Nijenhuis et al., 1996).
During the last decade there has been growing acknowledgement of somatoform dissociation, which is
corroborated by empirical and clinical evidence (Bowman, 1998; Butler et al., 1996; Kihlstrom, 1992;
Nijenhuis, 1999; Van der Hart et al., 2000).
Dissociative symptoms manifest as psychological phenomena, i.e., psychoform dissociative
Negative psychoform dissociative symptoms include loss of memory (amnesia); loss of affect
(numbing); loss of critical function (a cognitive action) resulting in suggestibility and difficulty thinking
things through; loss of needs, wishes, and fantasies; and loss of previously existing skills. These losses
potentially should be available in another part of the personality.
Negative somatoform dissociative symptoms involve apparent losses of sensory, perceptual or
motor functions, e.g., dissociative anaesthesia and sensory loss, and dissociative paralysis.
Positive psychoform dissociative symptoms include traumatic memories and nightmares that
have affective, cognitive, and somatosensory components. Many authors do not seem to acknowledge
dissociation as a core feature of traumatic memories (e.g., Harvey & Bryant, 1999), but some do (e.g.,
Van der Kolk & Van der Hart, 1991). Some Schneiderian first rank symptoms of schizophrenia--
hallucinations, especially hearing voices commenting or arguing internally, and thought insertion and
withdrawal—are common in patients with dissociative disorders (e.g., Dell, 2002) and are commonly
considered to be phenomena related to activity of dissociative parts. Clinical experience indicates they
are also frequently present in other trauma-related disorders, including complex PTSD.
Positive somatoform dissociative symptoms include intrusions of sensorimotor aspects of
traumatic re-experiences, including pain, uncontrolled behaviors such as tics, sensory distortions (Janet,
1907; Butler et al., 1996; Nijenhuis & Van der Hart, 1999b; Van der Hart et al., 2000), and
pseudoseizures (Bowman, 1998). Some Schneiderian criteria for schizophrenia are somatoform
dissociation symptoms, such as somatic passivity, and “made” bodily feelings, impulses, and actions,
e.g., feeling the physical urge to drive the car into a bridge; cutting and not being able to stop.
Dissociation and the Proposed Dimensions of Complex PTSD
Longitudinal studies provide evidence linking childhood abuse and peritraumatic, as well as
current dissociative symptoms (Lyons-Ruth & Jacobovitz, 1999; Macfie, Cichetti, & Toth, 2001; Ogawa
et al., 1997). Many severely abused individuals in these studies were characterized by symptom patterns
consistent with complex PTSD. Retrospective studies suggest that complex PTSD is associated with
early interpersonal traumatization and dissociative symptoms (Ford, 1999; Ford & Kid, 1998; McLean
& Gallop, 2003; Pelcovitz et al., 1997; Roth et al., 1997; Van der Kolk et al., 1996), and that earlier age
of onset of trauma predicts the severity of dissociative symptoms and posttraumatic stress symptoms
(e.g., Chu, Frey, Ganzel, & Matthews, 1999; Boon & Draijer, 1993; Nijenhuis, 1999). Different degrees
of “dissociative” symptoms and PTSD in complex PTSD have been reported (e.g., Ford, 1999; Van der
Kolk et al., 1996). However, the full range of dissociative symptoms has not been evaluated in these
studies, and alterations of consciousness may have been confused to an extent with symptoms of
Dissociation and Complex PTSD
We hypothesize that many features of complex PTSD are manifestations of structural
dissociation, or are intimately related to it. As noted previously, structural dissociation may be
manifested in enduring alternations between action systems of daily life (avoidance/numbing) and
systems of defense (reexperiencing). The symptoms in complex PTSD are generally noticeably more
complicated than in simple PTSD. If it is accurate that structural dissociation involves lack of integration
among action systems that have also developed in maladaptive patterns, then it could be hypothesized
that the symptom clusters of complex PTSD/DESNOS are each related to maladaptive and dissociated
action systems rather than being separate symptom clusters.
Alterations in Attention and Consciousness
As can be seen in Table 2 (Van der Kolk et al., this issue), this cluster includes a negative
psychoform dissociative symptom, i.e. amnesia, as well as a second category, transient dissociative
episodes. The rather unclear category of transient dissociative episodes seem to denote partial or full
reactivation of one or more EPs. Only one item from this symptom cluster directly assesses structural
dissociation, i.e., "feeling like there are two people living inside that control behavior at different times."
Although this item addresses the possibility of dissociative parts of the personality, it implies a
subjective experience of parts that have a strongly developed, elaborate sense of self, which may not
apply to complex PTSD. Some of the other items (alterations in attention) seem to pertain to alterations
in the level and field of consciousness, which we have distinguished from dissociation. However,
recurrent lapses in and alterations of attention and consciousness are dissociative when they involve
alternations between dissociative parts.
Most items of this cluster, listed in Table 2 (Van der Kolk, this issue) pertain to somatoform
dissociation (Nijenhuis, 1999). Thus some dissociative parts may be in good contact with the body, or
may experience a positive somatoform dissociative symptom, e.g., pain. For example, a patient with
complex PTSD complained of chronic, intermittent, sharp vaginal pain. Organic causes were eliminated.
During therapy an EP containing these sensations emerged, related to painful molestation of the patient
as a child. Once this traumatic memory was integrated among the various dissociative parts, the pain
immediately and permanently ceased. These and related clinical findings suggest the importance of
identifying and working with dissociative parts.
Somatoform dissociation is more characteristic of traumatization than the general category of
somatization (Nijenhuis, 1999), and is thus likely to be found in complex PTSD. Scores for somatization
in complex PTSD patients are strongly correlated with alterations in attention and consciousness (Van
der Kolk et al., 1996), indicating a possible common denominator of dissociation in both symptom sets.
Alterations in Regulation of Affect and Impulses
Structural dissociation involves insufficient modulation of emotion and behavior because lack of
integration among action systems impedes adaptive regulatory functions that stabilize affects and
actions. In addition, many parts have limited windows of psychophysiological stress tolerance
(Nijenhuis et al., 2002). Both factors may account for the clinical phenomena of affect and impulse
dysregulation so characteristic of complex PTSD (Van der Kolk et al., 1996). The dissociated
“vehement emotions” (Janet, 1889; Van der Kolk & Van der Hart, 1989) and actions of EPs are not
integrated with the ANP. This precludes potential regulatory actions by the ANP. Alternations of
unmodulated affects, such as panic or rage, and related impulsive actions, often may be due to intrusions
or switching among dissociative parts that each have dysregulated affects. Mood swings and affect
Dissociation and Complex PTSD
dysregulation are extremely common in dissociative disorders (cf., Cardeña & Spiegel, 1996; Chu,
1998), as they are in complex PTSD, and are often considered to be “soft signs” of dissociation. Several
forms of affect or impulse dysregulation represent positive dissociative symptoms of intrusion in that
these symptoms pertain to reactions of EPs, e.g, crying “fits,” rage reactions, self-harm behaviors,
impulsive sexual behavior (cf., Ford, 1999). Affect dysregulation can also involve negative dissociative
symptoms of EPs, e.g., sudden loss of emotions that may occur in conjunction with total submission to
real or perceived threat cues, or depression. Thus, alternations among dissociative parts and profound
intrusions can include sudden, uncontrolled changes of affect.
Alterations in Self-perception
Dissociative parts develop their own sense of self, no matter how rudimentary or elaborated.
Alternations among these parts are therefore usually accompanied by rather distinct changes in self-
perception. Some dissociative parts have an unduly negative estimation of themselves, viewing
themselves as despicable, dirty, worthless, and to blame, whereas other parts may evaluate themselves
quite differently (e.g., as powerful seducers, able to influence anyone). One woman with complex PTSD
had a part that felt she was exempt from social rules, while another part was extremely judgmental of
herself and ashamed for breaking even the smallest of rules, leading to increasing self hatred, internal
conflict, and impulsive actions.
Alterations in Relations with Others
Relational problems may be a result of alternations between maladaptive (insecure) attachment
systems and an inflexible defense system. As noted earlier, this apparent D-attachment can be
understood as organized alternation between attachment and defense action systems, i.e. between ANP
and EP. The patient may be phobic of and have a desperate desire for attachment. Because of early
attachment betrayal, any form of attachment may serve as a reactivating stimulus for EPs, resulting in a
traumatic reenactment in which the patient reexperiences relational trauma, evoking EPs.
Alterations in Systems of Meaning
Dissociative parts of the personality may have quite different worldviews and systems of beliefs.
Often, but not always, the ANP has a relatively balanced worldview, which alternates with other belief
systems fixated in trauma. Thus, some EPs may be despairing, believing the world to be a completely
negative, dangerous place, while other parts maintain an unrealistically optimistic outlook on life (e.g.,
“When I’m not feeling bad, I don’t need to come to therapy”), or a more realistic one. Thus, a patient, as
a functional ANP, was able to perform quite effectively in her role as a mediator at work, with a very
balanced perspective of human relations. Yet in personal relationships, the patient was dominated by
EPs that were angry, vengeful, and paranoid. She was aware of the two different perspectives, but could
not change the negative one, or the behaviors that accompanied it. Once an EP that felt betrayed by
familial abuse was engaged in therapy, the negative worldview and behaviors gradually diminished, and
once that EP became one with the ANP, a much more balanced and consistent belief system developed.
Research of Structural Dissociation
The theory of structural dissociation is a parsimonious conceptualization that offers testable and
refutable hypotheses related to why psychobiological measures of traumatized individuals alternate or
seem contradictory in various studies. The dual representation theory of Brewin (2003) is closely related
to our view, as is the polyvagal theory of Porges (2001). However, to the best of our knowledge, neither
Dissociation and Complex PTSD
has yet linked his view to the full range of trauma-related disorders. It is reasonable to postulate a
common feature that is open to empirical testing for a broad range of trauma-related disorders. Some
testable hypotheses include: (1) traumatized individuals respond to trauma reminders with different
psychobiological reactions, particularly different patterns of positive and negative dissociative
symptoms; (2) they have alternating psychobiological reaction patterns across time; and (3) survivors’
reactions to trauma-related cues depend on the type of dissociative part (ANP/EP) that is dominant
during measurement. Some recent research findings are consistent with or support these hypotheses.
Hypothesis #1. Our theory proposes that neurophysiologic and subjective reactivity vary
according to the dissociative part that dominates the functioning of traumatized patients during
measurement. Consistent with this, neural and physiologic reactivity correlate with degree of trauma
reexperiencing in reaction to trauma reminders (e.g., Lanius et al., 2002; Mason et al., 2001; Osuch et
al., 2001). For example, survivors with “dissociative” reactions—i.e., negative dissociative symptoms--
to trauma-reminders had very different neural reactivity than survivors who were emotionally
engaged—i.e., had positive dissociative symptoms (Lanius et al., 2002). Negative dissociative
symptoms largely characterize ANP, and EP in total submission, while positive dissociative symptoms
typify emotionally overwhelmed EPs.
Some but not all survivors have elevated heart rate to trauma reminders (e.g., Griffin, Resick, &
Mechanic, 1997; Osuch et al., 2001). This finding is consistent with the hypothesis that some survivors
were functioning as ANP or submissive EP during measurement, and others as hyperaroused EP.
Hypothesis #2. Consistent with clinical observations of other severely traumatized patients,
Vietnam veterans with PTSD have been described as having "stages" of decompensation (Wang,
Wilson, & Mason, 1996) that can be understood as alternations among ANPs and EPs. These stages
describe a wide range of functioning, from adaptive to totally dysfunctional PTSD core symptoms, as
well as several other dimensions of clinical functioning, such as affect regulation, defenses, ego states
[i.e., involving ANPs and EPs], interactions with the environment, capacity for self-destruction/suicide
and capacity for attachment and insight.” (p. 237)
Furthermore, PTSD patients have elevated cortisol levels when emotionally engaged in
traumatic memories, but suppressed cortisol levels when they are emotionally disengaged (Mason et al.,
2002). In our terms, emotional engagement characterizes EPs that become hyperaroused when exposed
to reminders of trauma, whereas disengagement characterizes ANPs and those EPs fixed in total
Hypothesis #3. Traumatized children can alternate between heart rate elevations with positive
dissociative symptoms and heart rate drops with negative dissociative symptoms when they feel
threatened (Perry, 1999). Similarly, preliminary findings indicate that patients with DID and complex
PTSD can have different subjective, behavioral, and physiologic reactivity to perceived threat cues as
ANP and different types of EPs (flight, freeze vs. total submission) (Nijenhuis, 2003).
ANP and EP in DID patients each engage different neural networks when listening to trauma
memory scripts (Reinders et al., 2003, submitted). EPs with flight or freeze reactions to trauma-related
cues had more amygdala, insula, caudate and somatosensory cortical activation than ANPs, which had
more prefrontal, parietal and occipital activation. EPs demonstrated higher heart rate and blood pressure,
and lower heart rate variability, and had far stronger emotional and sensorimotor subjective reactivity
than ANP. Findings suggest that EPs engage in sensorimotor and emotional reactions, and that ANP
inhibits the “emotional brain” and is depersonalized. Furthermore, differences in right medial prefrontal
activation suggest that EP and ANP engage a different sense of self. However, participants did not have
different psychobiological reactivity when they listened to emotionally neutral personal memory scripts,
indicating that separateness among parts is not absolute. Finally, ANP and EP dissociative parts in DID
patients had different degrees of EEG coherence (Ciorciari, 2003).
To date, direct tests of the theory of structural dissociation have been limited to DID. Future
tests must include other trauma-related disorders, notably complex PTSD.
Dissociation and Complex PTSD
We have proposed that traumatized individuals are characterized by a structural dissociation of
the personality, involving alternating dominance of and limited interaction between dissociative parts
dedicated to daily life and avoidant of traumatic memories (ANP) and parts dedicated to defense in
response to threat and fixated in traumatic experiences (EP). We have described three prototypical levels
of this structural dissociation that more naturally range along a continuum. Structural dissociation
implies that disorders such as complex PTSD/DESNOS, trauma-related BPD, DDNOS, and DID
constitute more complex forms of PTSD (e.g., Spiegel, 1984), although patients with these disorders
may not meet all diagnostic criteria of PTSD during some periods of time (Ford, 1999).
The idea of a common base of structural dissociation for the spectrum of trauma-related
disorders may be met with some resistance by those concerned that the theory proposes unduly reified
parts of the personality. This unease could be relieved with the understanding that there are levels of
complexity of structural dissociation; that dissociative parts of the personality can vary widely in
complexity and autonomy and are not completely separate reified entities, but rather they are based on
psychobiological action (sub)systems; and that structural dissocation is open to empirical study. Some
may argue that trauma-related disorders are more parsimoniously understood in terms of symptoms.
However, this descriptive approach cannot explain what organizes the patient’s alternating and
chronically maladaptive psychobiological features, how different trauma-related disorders are related,
and how these disorders can be treated.
Our analysis of the various symptoms clusters of complex PTSD suggests that structural
dissociation of the personality manifests pervasively in this disorder. Understanding structural
dissociation is a heuristic for research, assessment and treatment of complex PTSD. Future research
should include study of the sensitivity, specificity, and predictive values of negative and positive
dissociative symptoms in complex PTSD. In addition to the Structured Interview for DESNOS (SIDES,
Pelcovitz et al., 1996), the Dissociative Experiences Scale-Taxon (DES-T; Waller et al., 1996), the
Multidimensional Inventory of Dissociation (MID; Dell, 2002), and the Somatoform Dissociation
Questionnaire (SDDQ-20; Nijenhuis, 1999; Nijenhuis et al., 1996) may help assess more completely and
specifically dissociative symptoms in complex PTSD. Furthermore, measurement definitions of
dissociation and instruments must be adapted to assess the extent to which the major features of complex
PTSD involve structural dissociation. Ultimately, to test the hypothesis that complex PTSD involves
secondary structural dissociation, and to test the theory of structural dissociation more generally, the
development of an instrument that assesses levels of structural dissociation is required. Systematic
observation of switches between ANPs and EPs would demonstrate how alterations in affect, impulse
control, sense of self, interpersonal relationships, and systems of meaning may relate to dissociative
parts of the personality.
Treatment of complex PTSD and other trauma-related disorders should focus on the gradual
integration of dissociative parts, including their mental contents (e.g., traumatic memories) and
associated actions systems within the confines of a coherent and cohesive personality. This work should
begin with strengthening the ANP’s ability to function in daily life, and commonly implies overcoming
reciprocal fear and avoidance of different dissociative parts, and the related phobias of attachment,
separation, loss, traumatic memories, and change (Nijenhuis et al., 2002; Nijenhuis & Van der Hart,
1999a; Steele, Van der Hart, & Nijenhuis, 2001, in press; Van der Hart et al., 1993).
Note: The authors thank Julian Ford, Ph.D., for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this
article. They are especially indebted to Christine Courtois, Ph.D., for her ongoing editorial guidance in
previous versions of this paper.
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