If one does not desensitize, when placed under stress they will relatively quickly collapse psychologically, become incapactited, incapbable of functioning at least in any significantly productive way. When confronted with very unpleasant or painful stimuli the person must desensitize in order to psychologically survive and remain a functioning individual. For instance, a soldier enters a war zone and sees his first mutilated body. In reaction to this his Free Child ego state will be shocked to some degree. The sensitive part of his personality gets damaged or injured.
In order to cope with this and remain functional he has to hide away the FC part of his personality. He has to desensitize or he will be overwhelmed and go into a state of incapacitation to some degree at least. This is shown in the two diagrams below:
In the first diagram the Free Child can be open and exposed to the environment as there is no unpleasant stimuli confronting it. If painful stimuli does occur the person has to begin the process of desensitization and restructure their personality to a state indicated in the second diagram. That is meant to indicate the FC is hidden behind a wall or sealed off in some way. For most this is a natural and instinctive process that will automatically occur even without the person realizing it. If successful in making this transformation of the personality the person achieves a state where the FC is protected and thus is less sensitive to painful stimuli. The person is in a desensitized sate of mind. By the time the soldier sees his fifth mutilated body it has less impact on him because he has been able to restructure his personality as described above.
Some people cannot make this transition to a state of desensitization. They cannot transition from diagram 1 to diagram 2. This is likely to be found in those who are childlike to some degree. They have weak Adult and Parent ego states and may have injunctions like, “Don’t grow up”. In the desensitized state the Adult and Parent take over more of the functioning in the personality. If those ego states are weak the person will have a tendency to go into some kind of incapacitation rather than desensitize.
An example of this could be hysterical paralysis. This is sometimes found in soldiers who have been placed in very frightening and life threatening circumstances. They are simply overwhelmed with fear and develop a paralysis of the legs. There is no medical reason for the paralysis. Instead the FC is not adequately protected in the personality and thus it unconsciously incapacitates with the paralysis. The soldier then cannot function and is removed from the theatre of war.
The process of desensitization
Consider this graph
In the initial stages there is no stress and thus the person will not desensitize and they can function in an effective way to deal with any situations life presents them with. If the person is placed into a ongoing stressful situatuion such as entering a war zone then he is subjected to stress and hence the desensitization process will instinctively begin. For instance seeing a mutilated body. This may cause in him some kind of shock and revulsion. When this happens the FC will automatically start to seal itself off. If there is no assault to the senses then the desensitization will not occur. Desensitiaztion will occur more significantly and rapidly if the person knows it is likely there is more painful stimuli to come.
The soldier in war knows it is highly likely there will be more horrible things for him to cope with probably quite soon. If it is just a one off situation desensitization may occur but in a less dramatic form as the FC knows it does not have to prepare itself for future asssaults. If you see a car accident where a child is killed it is highly likely that will not occur again tomorow so the desensitizing is less so.
The graph is meant to indicate that the desensitization occurs at an inverse exponential rate. Initially there is a rapid rate of desensitization as the shock and stress occur. As the desenistization develops subsequent shocks will have less impact and thus less subsequent desensitization will occur. It seems reasonable to conclude there is a direct correlation between the degree of shock experienced and the degree of desensitization that results. Eventually, it is hypothesized, one reaches their optimal level of desensitiaztion and then there is a plateau effect.
Should the period of stress cease such as when the soldier is sent home then the need for the desensitization ceases. The FC does not need to be protected like it has in the past. It could be expected that over time the level of desensitization will slowly reduce. That process will be substantially facilitated if the person can do some ‘working through’. That is they talk to someone about what happened and how they felt and they are given a sympathetic response. That can be to an official therapist or to someone else who can take on that role to some degree such as a spouse, relative or close friend. The degree of shock and horror experienced dictates the degree of working through that needs to be done. The person is transitioning back from daigram 2 to diagram 1.
As mentioned before when desensitized the person hides away the sensitive parts of the personality. Humans can not survive for long periods without access to the sensitive aspects of them. If it does persist for an extended period of time then some other problem will evolve such as depression, anxiety, alcohol problems, insomnia, anger outbursts, flashbacks or simply an emotional coldness which leads to relationship difficulties. Common symptoms found in PTSD. Indeed part of the teatment of PTSD is to again resensitize the individual.
There is another way to cope besides desensitization which also hides the FC away from painful experiences. That is by dissociation. This can be seen as a more severe coping style. For some reason the person feels they must take more drastic action than just desensitizing. This can also occur in miliatry personell and is also not uncommonly found in people who have been physically and or sexually abused as children. It is also often reported by torture victims.
With dissociation there is said to be a splitting of the personality. When this is the case the person will report in some form, “That is not me”. They will experience self or part of self as not belonging to them or as separate from them. When this is reported one can consider dissociation as an explanation. Desensitization and dissociation both serve the same function of protecting the Free Child from further assaults but operate in different ways.
Desenistization can be seen as a normal human response to trauma. The vast majority of people will engage in this psychological process instinctly as a way of protecting self. Dissociation could be considered less ‘normal’ and is used less commonly as a way of coping. It will usually be used when circumstances are more psychologically and physically dire. For example in childhood with physical and sexual abuse and in adult torture victims.