Trauma and Its Effects on the Body and Mind

“Oh, I didn’t know you worked with war veterans!”

This is the most common response when friends and family members ask where I work: a trauma treatment center. This seems to be a very common misconception. The word ‘trauma’ or ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)’ may conjure up images of soldiers coming home from war and experiencing flashbacks or hypervigilance. These brave men and women may surely suffer from PTSD and have undergone a traumatic experience, but trauma and PTSD affect far more individuals than just this population.

The first step in learning more about how trauma works is to understand what constitutes a traumatic event. Trauma is an extremely distressing or disturbing experience. Violence, relational trauma (like emotional abuse), physical accidents, and natural disasters are all considered traumatic experiences. Neglectful and abusive childhood upbringings also result in trauma. Here are some interesting facts about trauma, in general:

  • Trauma does not affect everybody in the same way; what may be very alarming to one person may not affect another person in the same way.
  • It can be a one-time event or an ongoing experience (for example, a car accident vs. ongoing abuse).
  • Trauma does not have to be directly experienced. Witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurs to others is traumatic as well.
  • First responders or police officers may be traumatized as they have repeated exposure to distressing details of traumatic events.
  • Immediate effects of trauma may include shock, unwanted intrusive thoughts, denial, difficulty sleeping, and panic.
  • Not everybody develops PTSD after a traumatic experience. In fact, most people do not.

Trauma is not just fighting in a war. It is not just physical violence. A few scenarios and examples of traumatic experiences listed below may better help people understand the different types of trauma and how it manifests.

  • A family of five experiences a natural disaster, like a hurricane or flood, and loses their home.
  • A child is walking along the sidewalk and witnesses a very serious car accident.
      • Note: “The impact of early trauma and maltreatment is potentially profound and longlasting” (Ryan, Lane, & Powers, 2017).
  • A woman is getting into her car after work and gets mugged.
  • A father constantly degrades and humiliates his wife by calling her names in front of his children. (The mother and children can both be victims of this emotional trauma in this instance.)
  • A mother learns her young daughter has an incurable life-threatening illness.

As evidenced by these examples, trauma is not always physical violence. It is also not always obvious to the victim at the time of the trauma. They may have years pass before they discover what they have endured was, in fact, very stressful. This is the case for most childhood trauma. In a study by Monson et al. (2017), research found that the effects of a current PTSD diagnosis on quality of life endure with time. Immediate trauma treatment is essential to those who have experienced a traumatic event so as to not increase the negative impact on quality of life.

Many individuals adapt management strategies to mask the underlying trauma. Often unbeknownst to the person, a trauma can be the main catalyst of an addiction, eating disorder, or other compulsive behavior. That is why it is so important to treat the underlying trauma in order to heal the disordered behavior or thoughts. An integrated, individualized treatment plan focused on the trauma is often times what is necessary to fully help the individual recover.

There are many trauma experts who have extensively studied trauma and its effects on the human mind and body. Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk is a leading researcher on trauma. His book, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”, uses scientific research to show how trauma reshapes the body and brain. He researches new treatment modalities that are best used to treat trauma patients. Yoga, Neurofeedback, equine therapy, and somatic experiencing are some of the parts of an intensive treatment plan to treat trauma and PTSD. This new treatment model activates the brain’s natural neuroplasticity.

The importance of somatic work with trauma is emphasized in “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” by Peter Levine. To focus on bodily sensations and develop strong body awareness is a major way to heal traumatized individuals.

Among somatic work and other treatment methods previously mentioned, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) plays a large role in effectively treating trauma. EMDR aims to help individuals heal their psychological distress by visualizing and experiencing their traumatic event in a new way. The disturbing emotions associated with the traumatic event often subside with EMDR sessions. Through lateral eye movements and attention toward the person’s trauma, the brain is able to reprocess the traumatic experience in a new, less distressing way.

After experiencing a trauma, Post-Traumatic Stress symptoms may arise. The clinical presentation of post-traumatic stress disorder varies (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In some individuals, emotional reactions based on fear may rule. This may look like the individual re-experiencing the traumatic incident, hypervigilance, flashbacks, and recurrent memories and thoughts. For others, PTSD may present itself with a dysphoric mood state and negative thoughts. They may feel fear, guilt, and sadness, while also exhibiting socially withdrawn behavior. The inability to experience positive emotions may also occur. A combination of these symptoms may also present itself in individuals with PTSD.

Reconnect Integrative Trauma Treatment Center, a residential center in Malibu, California, focuses on treating the underlying trauma rather than directing all its energy toward the management strategy, such as the addiction or eating disorder. Reconnect uses effectively proven modalities to treat all different types of trauma, such as EMDR, Neurofeedback, Somatic Experiencing, yoga, and Equine Therapy. It is a six bed, adult female facility with an agreed upon minimum 30 day stay. The daily schedule incorporates many different types of psychotherapies with experienced clinicians and staff. It is important to note that over the last 25 years, researchers have identified more positive posttraumatic trajectories, such as resilience and posttraumatic growth (Silverstein et al., 2017). The treatment of trauma and PTSD is a burgeoning field filled with hope and optimism for those affected by trauma.

References:

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.

Monson, E., Caron, J., McCloskey, K., & Brunet, A. (2017). Longitudinal analysis of quality of life across the trauma spectrum. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, And Policy, 9(5), 605-612. doi:10.1037/tra0000254

Ryan, K., Lane, S. J., & Powers, D. (2017). A multidisciplinary model for treating complex trauma in early childhood. International Journal Of Play Therapy, 26(2), 111-123. doi:10.1037/pla0000044

Silverstein, M. W., Lee, D. J., Witte, T. K., & Weathers, F. W. (2017). Is posttraumatic growth trauma-specific? Invariance across trauma- and stressor-exposed groups. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, And Policy, 9(5), 553-560. doi:10.1037/tra0000236

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