Patients with dissociation following trauma more likely to experience PTSD

Following trauma, feeling detached from one's surroundings may suggest a higher risk of later developing serious mental health conditions. It's important to screen for feeling detached to identify patients who might benefit from preventive care.

Results from the largest prospective study of its kind indicate that for individuals who experience trauma, the presence of dissociation — a profound feeling of detachment from one’s sense of self or surroundings — may indicate a high risk of later developing severe post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, physical pain, and social impairment. The research is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

“Dissociation may help someone cope in the aftermath of trauma by providing some psychological distance from the experience, but at a high cost — dissociation is often linked with more severe psychiatric symptoms,” said lead author Lauren A. M. Lebois, PhD, director of the research program at McLean Hospital. “Despite this, dissociative symptoms remain under-studied and under-diagnosed due to a relative lack of understanding in medical and clinical practice.”

The data used by researchers examined 1,464 adults treated at 22 different emergency departments across the United States who reported whether they experienced a severe type of dissociation called derealization. Also,145 of the patients underwent brain imaging during an emotional task. Three months later, researchers collected follow-up reports of post-traumatic stress, depression, pain, anxiety symptoms, and functional impairment.

The research team found that patients who reported experiencing derealization tended to have higher levels of post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, pain, and functional impairment at the 3-month follow-up. In addition, both self-reported survey results and brain imaging results that were indicative of derealization predicted worse post-traumatic stress symptoms at the follow-up exam — even after accounting for post-traumatic stress symptoms at the start of the study and histories of childhood trauma. The results point to the importance of screening patients for dissociation-related symptoms following trauma to identify at-risk individuals who could benefit from early interventions.

The scientists discovered that derealization was linked with altered activity in certain brain regions detected through brain imaging. “Therefore, persistent derealization is both an early psychological marker and a biological marker of worse psychiatric outcomes later, and its neural correlates in the brain may serve as potential future targets for treatments to prevent PTSD,” said senior author Kerry J. Ressler, MD, PhD, chief scientific officer at McLean Hospital and a professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

The investigators hope that their findings will increase awareness of these symptoms and their potential aftereffects.

“With any luck this will enable more clinicians to connect empathically and communicate thoughtfully with patients to help them understand their symptoms and available treatments,” said Lebois. “Sadly, omitting dissociation from the conversation increases patients’ vulnerability to more severe psychiatric problems following trauma.”


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