Feelings of detachment predict worse mental health outcomes after trauma: Patients who experience this symptom may benefit from early interventions
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, which was led by investigators at McLean Hospital, 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 Dissociative Disorders and Trauma Research Program at McLean Hospital and an assistant professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Despite this, dissociative symptoms remain under-studied and under-diagnosed due to a relative lack of understanding in medical and clinical practice.”
To provide insights, Lebois and her colleagues examined information from the Advancing Understanding of RecOvery afteR traumA (AURORA) Study. The data pertained to 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.
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