Dissociation, somatization, and affect dysregulation: the complexity of adaptation of trauma

Am J Psychiatry. 1996 Jul;153(7 Suppl):83-93. doi: 10.1176/ajp.153.7.83.


Objective: A century of clinical research has noted a range of trauma-related psychological problems that are not captured in the DSM-IV framework of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This study investigated the relationships between exposure to extreme stress, the emergence of PTSD, and symptoms traditionally associated with "hysteria," which can be understood as problems with stimulus discrimination, self-regulation, and cognitive integration of experience.

Method: The DSM-IV field trial for PTSD studied 395 traumatized treatment-seeking subjects and 125 non-treatment-seeking subjects who had also been exposed to traumatic experiences. Data on age at onset, the nature of the trauma, PTSD, dissociation, somatization, and affect dysregulation were collected.

Results: PTSD, dissociation, somatization, and affect dysregulation were highly interrelated. The subjects meeting the criteria for lifetime (but not current) PTSD scored significantly lower on these disorders than those with current PTSD, but significantly higher than those who never had PTSD. Subjects who developed PTSD after interpersonal trauma as adults had significantly fewer symptoms than those with childhood trauma, but significantly more than victims of disasters.

Conclusions: PTSD, dissociation, somatization, and affect dysregulation represent a spectrum of adaptations to trauma. They often occur together, but traumatized individuals may suffer from various combinations of symptoms over time. In treating these patients, it is critical to attend to the relative contributions of loss of stimulus discrimination, self-regulation, and cognitive integration of experience to overall impairment and provide systematic treatment that addresses both unbidden intrusive recollections and these other symptoms associated with having been overwhelmed by exposure to traumatic experiences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Affect*
  • Dissociative Disorders / diagnosis
  • Dissociative Disorders / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological
  • Psychotherapy
  • Somatoform Disorders / diagnosis
  • Somatoform Disorders / psychology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnosis
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology