top of page

Helping a Loved One: Part One: Structural Dissociation & Neuro Development


Kristin Collective Dream Team

Healing Journey Homeschool

8 January 2019

Helping a Loved One with Structural Dissociation

~~~Part 1 of 3~~~

Living with a neurodevelopmental disorder or a mental illness can be extremely terrifying, painful, & challenging, but the most difficult aspect of it is suffering in isolation, unable to articulate the experience of episodes or communicate personal needs.

The hope is to expand awareness & understanding regarding living with structural dissociation so that communication can be more effective, allowing for fewer pitfalls within relationships & day to day living.

Living successfully with any form of structural dissociation is absolutely possible! Knowledge is power, & the more knowledgeable we can be regarding how disorders affect the brain & body, the more powerful we will be in combating the difficulties that arise from it.

It is surprisingly common for a loved one to be struggling with a form of structural dissociation. Your loved one could be a child or parent, neighbour or coworker, best friend or romantic partner; perhaps it’s secretly yourself & you have no idea how to respond to your own being. Regardless of your purpose for reading this article, the hope is for these insights & detailed guidelines to aid in leading you to a place of hope & healing.

Structural dissociation causes neurodevelopmental disorders that mask as mental illnesses, including borderline personality disorder {BPD}, complex post-traumatic stress disorder {C-PTSD}, & dissociative disorders such as dissociative identity disorder {DID}.

It can be challenging to support a loved one healing with structural dissociation, but it is absolutely possible & can be beautifully rewarding as well! Establishing tangible ways to support your loved one’s healing journey within day to day interactions will benefit your depth of knowledge, your interpersonal relationship, & your loved one’s healing journey.

Structural Dissociation & NeuroDevelopment

Structural dissociation causes the brain to develop differently from the typical route of neurodevelopment: rather than the left & right brain hemispheres fully integrating during childhood, they develop independently, causing a variety of challenges moving forward.

Because the left & right brain hemispheres do not have automatic communication with one another as the average integrated brain possesses, life experiences tend to be dramatically affected.

The manner in which memories are processed, pain is communicated, sensory stimuli is processed, etc., is all intensely affected because of the neurodevelopmental disorder involving structural dissociation.

On top of that, any time a trigger occurs---whether directly related to trauma or simply due to everyday stressors---, the medial prefrontal cortex within the brain’s frontal lobes completely shuts down, becoming entirely inaccessible.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex is extremely important. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to engage within society as a “mature, stable, fully functional adult.” The prefrontal cortex is solely responsible for one's ability to ~

  • be mindful & curious

  • maintain attention

  • retrieve & manipulate already learned information

  • learn new concepts or skills

  • integrate new information

  • regulate impulsivity

  • keep certain emotions & thoughts in check

  • govern actions & intentions

  • test reality

  • manage dysregulated autonomic responses

  • use executive functions

Without dependable access to this part of the brain, seemingly basic tasks, emotions, or pieces of information can become overwhelming & challenging beyond comprehension.

Nervous System Significance

From the external perspective, it can feel impossible to know what’s happening in the mind of your loved one. How can you know if part of their brain is shutting down & affecting them or if this is their full, true self?

There are a variety of ways to identify an episode caused by the fragmentation of consciousness that occurs within structural dissociation.

It’s important to keep an open-mind regarding separating “self” from “symptom” within your loved one. During episodes of their disorder, they will not always have access to their true selves because of the severe dysregulation of fragmented chaos of consciousness happening beyond all conscious awareness. Both brain & body are in an invisible war that directly affects life experience & the ability to effectively respond to it.

An “episode” simply refers to a period of time when the disorder is flared, often due to stress, & symptoms are more prevalent than the individual’s fully authentic self.

Structural dissociation causes intensive nervous system dysregulation.

The average integrated adult brain functions effectively with the body’s nervous system, allowing for what most describe as a “normal” life experience.

Our nervous system is in charge of practically everything happening within the brain & body: eating, sleeping, breathing, thinking, speaking, growing, healing, reading, learning, processing & responding to sensory stimuli, perceiving present pains, moving the body’s limbs, balance & coordination, regulating body temperature, creating new memories & accessing old ones, feeling emotions, stress management, & more!

If the nervous system is dysregulated, literally ALL of these modalities of operation are dramatically impacted but without any conscious awareness of what is happening internally.

Signs of Nervous System Dysregulation

Although it’s simplest to observe nervous system dysregulation internally if living with increased conscious awareness, it is still possible to tell from an external perspective as well.

Signs of a dysregulated sympathetic nervous system: “high energy” symptoms:

  • psychomotor agitation, such as restless legs

  • rapid or pressured speech

  • mania or hypomania, mistaken for bipolar disorder

  • insomnia: sleeping less than usual, not wanting to sleep, sleeping less soundly than usual, awake at odd hours of morning or night, etc.

  • anxiety

  • feeling of increased body temperature: wearing clothes too warm for the present weather, comments about it being hotter in the room than it actually is/feels, etc.

  • increased heart rate: compassionately say, "Take a deep breath for me," & feel their pulse

  • aggression: more critical than usual, more harsh than usual, more defensive than usual, more irritable than usual, may comment about feeling impulsive

  • on edge: physically prepare to “go” (run/fight), expressing feelings of restlessness or impulsivity

  • anger

  • narrowed eyes & furrowed brow: eyes more narrowed or not as wide & open as usual; crease in brow, between eyebrows; facial expression may be mistaken for being upset with you or being angry or agitated

  • listening to music louder than usual or is healthy

  • speaks with uncontrollably loud volume {overextended "outdoor voice"}

  • higher tolerance to sour, salty, & spicy foods/flavours than usual: perhaps eating spicy foods or adding more spices to meals than usual, expressions of craving of salt {“I could eat this whole bag of chips!”}

  • may be unable to feel touch on skin

Signs of a dysregulated parasympathetic nervous system: “low energy” symptoms:

  • psychomotor retardation: moving much slower than usual

  • selective mutism: being unable to effectively utilize verbal communication

  • depression