Delayed Emotional Responses

Children growing up in dysfunctional homes learn a magic trick; they learn to delay their emotional responses until they have privacy, or they dissociate away from their emotions.


This article will focus on delayed reactions to emotional responses and how this affects people with dissociative identity disorder.


Childhood Trauma and Dissociative Identity Disorder



Childhood trauma is made up of events experienced by children that make them feel fearful and is commonly dangerous, violent, or life-threatening. Some examples of physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or experiencing a major medical problem that is fear-filled for the child.


Childhood trauma doesn’t always involve something happening to the child, as watching a loved one die, for instance, is exceptionally traumatic for kids.


Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is caused by repeated extreme childhood abuse (trauma). This cause is especially true if the child has no adults to turn to for comfort and thus feels trapped and alone in their pain.


Childhood trauma is also a leading cause of delayed emotional response, as seen with the disorder’s dissociative properties. The child feels endangered, has nowhere to go with what happened to them, and has no choice but to dissociate away their emotions.


Symptoms of dissociation include:


  • Inability to remember relevant events
  • Feeling disconnected from your emotions
  • Feeling confused
  • Transferring behavioral control to alters
  • Feeling distant and numb from oneself
  • Experiencing flashbacks


In essence, the memory and emotions of the trauma are locked behind dissociative walls when the child forms an alter to hold the emotions they dare not feel.


Emotional Detachment



Emotional detachment is common in dissociative identity disorder and is a cause of delayed emotional responses. The amnesiac walls built around a memory of trauma are high and strong and have become a go-to reaction when perceiving a threat. These walls have another purpose, to keep people with DID from being hurt, and this causes enormous problems with friendships and intimate relationships.


There are two basic types of emotional detachment. The first is helpful detachment, such as setting boundaries with people. Boundaries are vital to maintaining a healthy distance from others who demand your emotional attention.


The second type is unhealthy and harmful when it is not controlled. One may experience numbness in a process known as emotional blunting. This type of emotional detachment usually requires the intervention of a mental health professional.


Emotionally detached people cannot express their emotions accurately and sometimes have a difficult time expressing compassion and thus come off as cold or uncaring.


There are signs and symptoms that you are emotionally detached.


  • You have difficulty forming or maintaining personal relationships
  • You avoid people, activities, or places because they remind you of past trauma
  • You lack attention or appear otherwise occupied when others are around
  • You have difficulty feeling or being loving towards an intimate partner
  • You do not easily share your feelings or emotions
  • You have a reduced ability to express emotion
  • You experience difficulty committing to a relationship


Emotional detachment and delayed reactions to emotions go hand-in-hand as they are common in people living with DID.


Delayed Emotional Response




Delayed emotional responses are part of the freeze response in the nervous system. A complete freeze response happens as you numb until the dangerous situation has passed. The freeze response is an intense form of dissociation and is biologically hardwired into your brain so you can survive.


As a child, showing how you truly feel about someone was dangerous. If you showed anger or had a temper tantrum when or shortly after you were abused, the outcome would not be pleasant at all. Therefore, you shove those strong emotions deep inside and form an alter to hold them for you.


Now, as adults, those living with DID find themselves experiencing either the emotions of the past or having delayed responses to emotions they may feel today.


For instance, you meet with your therapist for a session, which is tough, with emotions spontaneously pouring from you. You are experiencing a delayed emotional response.


Then, after you and your therapist are done, you get in your car to go home and begin weeping and dissociating, making driving almost impossible and definitely dangerous. This, too, is a delayed emotional response.


Overcoming a Delayed Emotional Response



Having delayed emotional responses is worrisome and causes distress for the person experiencing them. There is no medication to treat delayed emotional responses, but sometimes psychiatrists prescribe antidepressants in an effort to manage the condition.


Attending psychotherapy is the best treatment for delayed emotional response, with one such treatment being eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR). Other types of psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, are where you sit with a therapist and discuss your emotions which, as discussed above, can trigger a delayed emotional response of its own.


The best way to overcome delayed emotional responses is to be aware that they exist and that you are experiencing them. As they say, the first step in avoiding a trap is knowing its existence. If you remain ignorant or deny delayed emotional response, you lower your ability to overcome it.


Ending Our Time Together


A delayed emotional response is typical among those who were victimized as children and among those who experience interpersonal trauma such as the death of a loved one.


Why is it so common? Because we are all human and have brains that attempt to protect us from unbearable pain. The freeze response is part of the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response that is there to increase the chances of our survival.


Instead of fighting against delayed emotional response and fearing it at the end of a therapy session, allow yourself ten minutes, in the end, to make sure you are not dissociated or harboring unexpressed emotions. Do a thorough self-check, with the help of your therapist, to ensure you are yourself and not dissociated into an emotional alter.


Above all, if you do feel dissociated or experience extreme emotions after leaving a therapy session, don’t attempt to drive home. Stop in a parking lot or some other safe venue until the emotion that is attacking you is expressed, then continue home. It’s not just your life that is at stake, but others as well.


Keep your chin up and know that you release some of the pressure that your alter experiences every time you express long-hidden emotions. It is like letting the air out of a balloon slowly. If you do not release it slowly, the balloon will get away from you and spin about the room. If you don’t release the emotions, the balloon may pop. However, released slowly and in a controlled manner, the air will leave and take the pressure with it.


“Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to find it.” – Tori Amos


“Feelings are much like waves, we can’t stop them from coming, but we can choose which ones to surf.” – Jonatan Martensson




Kolb, L. C., & Mutalipassi, L. R. (1982). The conditioned emotional response: A sub-class of the chronic and delayed post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychiatric Annals12(11), 979-987.


D’Andrea, W., Ford, J., Stolbach, B., Spinazzola, J., & Van der Kolk, B. A. (2012). Understanding interpersonal trauma in children: why we need a developmentally appropriate trauma diagnosis. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry82(2), 187.



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