Shock and dissociation are connected. This is something not many clinicians think about. The relationship is rich and worthy of being explored. Dissociation is commonly thought of in relation to trauma, and shock is a typical reaction associated with trauma. Once you realize how much a part of the process it is, you will want to get training to treat it specifically. It’s something the rest of the process depends upon.
Shock As Emotional Numbness
Ever had a client complain they felt numb inside? If you have, they are pointing to having experienced shock. They may not own it, but that’s part of the picture in these cases. One of the goals of therapy is to help clients get in touch with how they are feeling. And if all they are aware of is feeling numb inside they aren’t in touch with the emotions the numbness is covering up. Numbness is something, but it’s not the bottom layer of a client’s emotional world.
Shock As Disbelief
Another way shock can reveal itself is for a client say something such as “I can’t believe that happened!” This can be either with traumatic events or with everyday events of a positive nature. Other expressions of shock are “Is this really happening?” or “Is he/she really saying…?” As Robert Miller, PhD states in one of his clinical manuals “The key indicator of a shock statement is that the statement indicates a denial of something that happened.”
Where Dissociation Comes In
When a client experiences shock, then they are literally too stunned to be ‘in their body.’ At that point, they dissociate and have an ‘out of body experience’ of sorts. Once this experience sets in, their ability to fully process an event is limited due to the shock experience. Trauma and dissociation tend to go hand in hand, and some individuals are more prone to dissociation than others. They key is being able to help these clients process out the shock from their systems. So they are able to function more effectively due to not having the emotional numbness anymore. It was needed at the time of the traumatic event. But it outlives its usefulness pretty fast, especially if this person might try to use substances or process addictions to feel anything. This is often true of those who suffer from PTSD.
How to Help Process Shock and Dissociation
One of the best means of treating trauma is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). In my experience it only indirectly treats shock. When the client is asked for emotions relating to a traumatic event, most are not keenly aware of shock. I don’t know of many clinicians that are trained to ask about this in setting up a processing session. Image Transformation Therapy (ImTT) is a new form of therapy. This specifically focuses on the feeling of shock and process it out of the system. I believe in time it will rival EMDR in its use and prevalence. If you don’t do either one, at least helping a client to be more aware of when they have experienced shock and its consequent dissociation is a step in the right direction. If emotional numbness comes up in an EMDR session it very well may be processed successfully. Whether it gets called shock or not isn’t so important. But a trauma-informed therapist would do well to know all the various ways the trauma gets experienced, especially those like shock.
Scott Kampschaefer, LCSW is a private practice therapist in Austin, Texas. He has an extensive background in working with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder at a clinic for older adults with these disorders in Austin. He now works with adults and adolescents of all ages in private practice.