stranger things isolation tank visual as analogy for explaining dissociation

Structural Dissociation and The Progressive Approach Explained Using Stranger Things

If you’re familiar with the hit Netflix series Stranger Things and would like to learn more about structural dissociation and The Progressive Approach, this is the blog for you. If you’re not familiar with Stranger Things, here’s a brief synopsis of the episode we’ll be discussing today. Fair warning to anyone who isn’t caught up on season four: there will be spoilers. And yes, superfans, I know I’m leaving out about 90% of the show here. We’re going for relevance and brevity. 😉

Spoiler Alerts!

The episode (or chapter, as the Duffer brothers call them) we’ll focus on is Season 4, Chapter 6: Dive. As with most Stranger Things episodes, this one is packed full of action, thrills, and a kickass soundtrack. For the sake of today’s conversation, we’ll stick to the storyline of El, Papa, and Henry/001/Vecna. For anyone wondering who these people are – El (aka 011) is a teenage girl who has superpowers. She was, for the lack of better words, created by Papa in Hawkins, Indiana, where most of the Stranger Things series takes place. Papa is the lead scientist at Hawkins Lab. He’s oftentimes the antagonist, a bit of a mad scientist who’s performed controversial experiments on children, but a genius, nonetheless. Earlier in the series, using her superpowers, El accidentally opened a gate to an alternate dimension and unleashed all sorts of evil upon Hawkins, and ultimately the world. It’s cool though because she also saved the world from that evil a few times. I’m skipping a lot, but that evil turns out to be Henry (aka 001, aka Vecna).

So, the last time she saved the world from evil, in Season 3, she lost her superpowers. This is where dissociation comes in. Throughout the entire series, she’s always had a nagging question about whether her powers made her a monster or a hero. I mean, she has seen some stuff. To say she’s been through trauma is the understatement of the century. Now that this not-so-new threat has returned to Hawkins and is murdering teenagers, the powers-that-be realize that El is their only hope. They recognize the murders as the work of Henry and since El is the one who beat him before, she can do it again. So, they turn to Papa to help El get her superpowers back. Papa explains to El what happens when a person has a stroke. The brain misfires and they have to learn to walk and talk again. He believes something similar happened to El with her superpowers in the last battle she fought, only in this case it was a terrible trauma that she experienced, and her superpowers have been suppressed by another part of herself. His solution is to proceed with the Nina Project to help El regain her powers. This is the fun part. Papa and his team of scientists call it the Nina Project. Psychologists today call it The Progressive Approach.

stranger things season 4 episode 6 papa talking to 11 screenshot image via NetflixImage via Netflix

What is The Progressive Approach?

The Progressive Approach is a technique used in preparation for treating complex trauma and dissociation. Check out our previous blog for a reminder of what dissociation is and why we do it. The Progressive Approach’s process includes using small interventions as the therapist begins to recognize the client’s internal defense systems so that they may safely and effectively reprocess the client’s traumatic experiences or events.

This approach uses ‘parts work’. The clinician will help the client connect to ‘parts of their self’ to see if these parts-of-self are connected to traumatic memories. If they discover there are parts which are connected memories, that qualifies those parts as dissociative trauma parts-of-self.

In therapy using EDMR and the Progressive Approach combined, if the client becomes blocked by a dissociative part, the therapist can guide the client in giving clarity in understanding the part-of-self that needs it, as well as help to process that memory.

While Papa doesn’t exactly use EMDR therapy, the Nina Project is his way of slowly exposing El to images from her past to break down her internal defense systems so that they can safely and effectively reprocess her trauma. We’re taken on the journey along with El, leading up to the big reveal. El isn’t sure until the end whether these memories she has – these flashes of terrible things, these parts of herself – are her own doing…? She isn’t sure if she’s good or bad. She’s experienced so much abuse, so much manipulation, so much trauma that she’s dissociated the good parts of herself from the bad parts. Yes, it’s true there are parts of her who are capable of powerful, life-altering and even life-ending actions. But it’s also true that those same parts of her are capable of life-saving and life-giving abilities. Before the Nina Project, before the Progressive Approach, she’s unable to see which parts are which.

What is Structural Dissociation?

Experts agree that when we experience complex trauma, there are three structures that can develop. This is known as structural dissociation. Those three types are as follows:

Primary Structural Dissociation

This is the simplest and perhaps most common form of structural dissociation. For the purposes of this piece, we believe it’s the type of structural dissociation El experienced in Stranger Things. Primary Structural Dissociation consists of two parts – the “Apparently Normal Part (ANP)” and the “Emotional Part (EP)”. It’s no surprise that the ANP is the everyday part-of-self. This is the part who carries out daily activities for survival. They socialize, eat, and drink. They do the living part of life. In El’s case, her ANP is the one who wrote letters to Mike (her boyfriend). She’s the one who went to school, had dinner with Joyce, Will, and Johnathan (her new family). El’s ANP is also the one who somehow lost every ounce of fashion sense from series three to series four.

The Emotional Person is the one who experienced trauma. That’s the one who has the memories and feelings locked away. That’s the one who is hiding those from the ANP, keeping her safe as a defense mechanism. The EP is not in control, until she is, poor Angela’s face… Angela is a bully who picked on El, triggering some trauma, and El may or may not tried to kill her. We’re not sure. Neither was El. As explained in the book, The Haunted Self, “The EP is, most of the time, not in control, but can take full executive control during a flashback in which orientation to the present is lost, and the person is in a full reliving of an earlier trauma.” This explains why, when asked directly if she was trying to kill Angela, El’s ANP honestly answers, “I don’t know.” If Stranger Things fans know one thing about El, it’s that friends don’t lie.

stranger things screenshot image via Netflix.Image via Netflix

Secondary Structural Dissociation

This one doesn’t have any relation that we could see to Stranger Things, but we wanted to be thorough. If you’ve seen the 2003 film with John Cusack called Identity, that’s a better example of Secondary Structural Dissociation. Trauma is usually more prolonged and repeated in these cases, for example, prolonged child abuse. There is typically one ANP and multiple EPs present. Similar to Primary Structural Dissociation, the ANP is still in control most of the time, living life. However, the Emotion Persons will create separate and unique identities, each with their own autonomy, characteristics, names, and even age and gender.

Tertiary Structural Dissociation

You’re probably asking yourself by now, where do multiple personalities come in? While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) no longer refers to it as multiple personality disorder, rather dissociative identity disorder. Tertiary Structural Dissociation is where DID comes into play. In these cases, there are multiple ANPs, as well as multiple EPs.

How is Structural Dissociation Treated Using the Progressive Approach?

Since this is real life and there are no superheroes, Hawkins Labs, Nina Projects, or Papas, science and psychology has worked together to find a way of treating structural dissociation. The Progressive Approach can be used to treat complex trauma, depression, hopelessness, anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, substance abuse, eating disorders, and more. This model combined with EMDR allows recipients to not only reprocess significant moments but also decrease internal conflict and create empathy with all parts-of-self.

To learn more about EMDR or the Progressive Approach may help you, reach out to Claibourne Counseling in Scottsdale. Our team of licensed therapists is highly trained and ready to get to work.


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