To 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.
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 and Anxiety
- Trauma and Substance Abuse
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Dissociative Disorders
- Eating Disorders
Trauma impacts your relationships:
- Relationships after Severe Trauma: Making Healthy Choices
- Family of Choice
- Forgiveness and Trauma: Are Some Things Unforgivable?
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.