How Trauma Impacts Mental Health

Mental Health Month Blog Day BadgeTo raise awareness during Mental Health Month, the American Psychological Association is hosting a mental health blog party.  You can take part by visiting the site, posting the badge on your own blog, and sharing your thoughts about mental health.

If you have been reading this blog at all, I am sure you are aware that I focus a great deal on how trauma relates to mental health. In fact, I consider it a mission,  educating others about the ways trauma is even broader than commonly understood and is also a component underlying many psychological diagnoses. Trauma, little t and big T, complex and simple, has lasting effects and is still not well enough understood. Awareness is so crucial to combat the stigma that still exists, about mental health issues in general and trauma specifically. The pervasiveness of childhood trauma and its long lasting impact is a big secret and survivors who try to talk about their experiences are often shamed, blamed and stigmatized.

For my contribution to the mental health blog party, I decided to share some highlights from my past blog posts, a sort of quick reference guide to understanding how trauma impacts mental health.

What is trauma and what is its impact?

Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions in which:
The individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed or the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity. (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995, p. 60)

Quoting myself: The important part of this definition in my practice is the emphasis on “unique individual experience”.  You get to define which experiences are traumatic for you, whether or not it would impact others in the same manner.  It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic,  but your own emotional experience of the event.

The following are examples of how childhood abuse might impact you as an adult:

  • Relationship Problems–difficulty with communication, trouble setting healthy boundaries, repeating unhealthy patterns in choices of partners and difficulty with intimacy.
  • Social Alienation–feeling different from others, not accepted, stigmatized, social phobia.
  • Low Self-Esteem–self-doubt, self-blame, shame, feeling like an imposter.
  • Difficulty with Feelings–trouble in recognizing, managing and appropriately expressing feelings, depression, panic attacks, anxiety
  • Body issues–disconnection/dissociation from body, distorted body image, coping mechanisms that can harm the body (self-injury, eating disorders, abuse of alcohol and drugs), see sexual problems.
  • Sexual Problems–sexual inhibition or compulsive sexual behavior, flashbacks to abusive experiences during sexual contact, inability to achieve orgasm, pain or numbing during intimacy.
  • Physical problems– migraines, chronic pain, arthritis, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome
  • Other Symptoms of Trauma–feelings of fear, agitation, amnesia for events or parts of your life, numbing of bodily areas, nightmares, dissociation.

Trauma can impact your physical health:

Trauma plays a role in many mental health disorders:

Trauma impacts your relationships:

And of course, trauma affects the development of your sense of self:

What can you do to combat trauma-related stigma?

  • Stop blaming the victim.  Speak up as an ally when you hear victim blaming conversations.  Those who have been abused and need to get help for it are not the problem. Abuse and the systems that allow it to continue are.
  • Understand that avoidance, denial, not talking about childhood trauma and abuse does not make it better. If a survivor could just think it away, they would have long ago.
  • Realize that nature vs. nurture is a false dichotomy. Our environment (how we are nurtured) effects our brain chemistry. “Chemical imbalances” as the cause of psychological problems rarely exist in a vacuum.

The good news about trauma is that it can be treated! Trauma-informed therapy is available and effective in addressing all the types of trauma aftermath outlined above. You can find a therapist who is a good fit for you. Some good places to look for referrals include Sidran Institute and the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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9 Responses to How Trauma Impacts Mental Health

  1. Pingback: Mental Health Blog Day Round Up | Your Mind Your Body

  2. Dying to Live says:

    I’ve been depressed since childhood. I believe it stems from my parents rocky marriage which ended when I was around 8 yrs old. It has always felt to me as if we “all” got divorced, we divorced my father.

    My mom remarried a man who had no children and lived with his mother, so there we all were living with him and his mother. It was horrible, just horrible, I hated ever minute of it. This is also the time frame in which I recall actually noticing my depression. What kid wants to go to bed before the sun has even set, ME, that’s who. However at 9 yrs old it’s pretty difficult to understand what’s going on within our self.

    My father sent me to a psychologist at around age 12 or 13, but of course I trusted no one by this time, and couldn’t talk to the Dr out of fear of betraying my mom. It was clear to me that the psychologist and my father were “talking”.

    I spent the rest of my life hiding my depression until it because so difficult to manage that I attempted suicide. Even then I don’t think anti-depressants were available, or at least they weren’t made available to me.

    Perhaps my “traumas” don’t sound very traumatic to others, but they were ongoing, year after year, after year. Even while on anti-depressants I had another suicide attempt in 2004 (some 20 years later) and a brief visit to a psych center, which I managed to behave my way out of within 2 days.

    I don’t seem able to manage HUGE emotional upheavel in my life and do everything in my power to avoid stress and anxiety now, which both are very difficult to avoid in this day and age.

    • thank you so much for commenting and illustrating how depression is definitely another mental health issue associated with trauma!

      your traumas are a big deal to you, and that is all that matters.

  3. Well, am I timely, or what? Happy mental health blog party day! Very cool.

  4. Pingback: Psyche’s Flashlight #1 – December 27, 2010 « High School Confidential

  5. Kate says:

    Kathleen,

    Could you please explain why a therapists education and training is important. I went to an LCDC when I was 18 for help with all of my symptoms and I feel that I was further traumatized.

    Through research and education I have learned the difference. I live in deep South Texas what type of training should a therapist have and what suggestions do you have for finding a counselor for complex ptsd?

    • Hi Kate-

      If you have not already, you might want to read my article The Therapy Relationship: What Makes a Good Fit?

      In answering the question “why a therapists education and training is important”, I tend to flip it around and think how could it NOT be important? If you were seeking treatment for a medical issue, would you want your doctor to have training specific to your problem? Would you want them to have done extensive training and supervised practice before becoming licensed to practice independently? The same is important in your therapist.

      Not every therapist has equal training, or training at all in every issue. When I look at therapist directories, I am concerned by those that claim expertise in every issue under the sun. How is that possible?

      I am not familiar with the LCDC degree so I cannot comment on that.

      In general you want someone with an advanced degree who is licensed to practice in that area. You want to know what qualifies that therapist as an expert in working with folks with trauma, complex ptsd in particular. Have they had specific course work or continuing education in that area? Are they members of related professional organizations? What percent of their caseload involves complex ptsd? What approach do they take to this therapy (and is that recognized as a valid approach by other experts in the field).

      Sidran and ISSTD are great organizations with therapist directories and resources. I also would look for a therapist with some sort of web presence to get a further sense of their experience and credentials. And do not be afraid to ask questions and interview potential therapists!

      Good luck with your search!

  6. John says:

    Good Blog, I really find the information helpful to under stand shame. I work in the substance abuse field in a residential setting and i have come to believe that shame and self-loathing are two very important factor in a person developing an addiction.

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