Society is learning more and more about the adverse effects of trauma in the mental, physical health and wellbeing sector. Science is providing evidence based on data showing how unresolved trauma can haunt anyone throughout their life in ways that often don’t seem direct. Adults may attempt to forget or gloss over the past. The old wounds have many kinds of physical and psychological effects. Certain events may involuntarily trigger reactions in humans that haven’t been thought about in years: guilt, shame, fear, or anger sourcing from early life events.
Traumatic experiences include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; family and community violence; natural disasters; wars; and the ongoing, cumulative impact of poverty, racism, and oppression. Repeated exposure to traumatic events without adequate support — particularly from an early age — can have a devastating, long-term impact on health and well-being.
Attachment research suggests that it isn’t just what happens to us that affects us and our relationships. We’re also affected by the extent to which we haven’t been able to feel the full pain and make sense of our experiences. When we don’t deal with our trauma, we carry it with us. The stigma compounds. We haven’t made sense of our story, and therefore, our past is still impacting our present in countless invisible ways. It influences how we parent, how we relate to our partner, how we feel, think, and operate in the world.
Many have carried feelings of shame their entire life; all the while believing anything bad that happened to them was also deserved. This usually happens to rape victims who experience a sense of helplessness and develop a trauma response instinct to bury the past, minimize, or avoid pain, feeling the feeling of what happened can actually lead to healing. It can help us separate our early experiences from the present day and identify the negative overlays these experiences have on our current lives, including our physical health and relationships.
Creating a coherent narrative can be a powerful tool for resolving early childhood trauma. Making sense of history can free one of many of its burdens in all their manifestations. It can help break destructive intergenerational cycles to become stronger parents and partners. It can lead to feel more secure within ourselves and provide more security to others. Facing trauma isn’t easy, but it is a fundamental aspect of healing mentally and physically, a tool for building better relationships, and a key to unlocking our truest selves.
Trauma-informed care shifts the focus from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” A trauma-informed approach to care acknowledges that health care organizations and care teams encompass a complete picture of a patient’s life situation — past and present — in order to provide effective health care services with a healing orientation. Adopting trauma-informed practices can potentially improve patient engagement, treatment adherence, and health outcomes, as well as provider and staff wellness. It can also help reduce avoidable care and excess costs for both the health care and social service sectors.
Organizational trauma-informed care is a systemic approach to service delivery that is grounded in an understanding of the causes and consequences of trauma and promotes resilience and healing. Trauma-informed organizations ensure that mission, culture, and practice are aligned to recognize and support trauma-survivors.
The CDC statistics on abuse and violence in the United States are sobering. They report that one in four children experiences some sort of maltreatment (physical, sexual, or emotional abuse). One in four women has experienced domestic violence. In addition, one in five women and one in 71 men have experienced rape at some point in their lives — 12% of these women and 30% of these men were younger than 10 years old when they were raped. This means a very large number of people have experienced serious trauma at some point in their lives.
Unfortunately, despite best efforts, the very services and systems designed to help people become healthy can be re-traumatizing. According to a report by the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a major reason many service members do not seek out treatment is the stigma associated with receiving mental health care. Many service members are worried that disclosing psychological difficulties or seeking out mental health treatment will negatively affect their military careers. However, the consequences of not seeking out treatment can be dire. Untreated psychological difficulties may only get worse and could have a major impact on a soldier’s ability to perform in combat or at home when they return from duty.
Many patients have a history of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse, as well as serious illnesses and negative experiences in the medical setting. We need to learn to respond with empathy and understanding. Unfortunately, only slightly more than a third of people with PTSD are in some kind of treatment. In order to cope with the trauma from an event, some people will turn to emotional numbing or avoidance as a way to manage the emotional and physical pain. For people with PTSD, this can also manifest in avoiding thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event and places or people that bring the event to mind.
Building relationships and understanding are key. Learning new ways to cope with traumatic events, overwhelming stress, depression, anxiety, or any other serious life event is possible. Reaching out to your doctor is the first step to addressing emotional numbing. They can help you find a mental health professional trained in these areas.
By forming a support network with your doctor, mental health expert, and close family and friends, you can begin to change how you deal with trauma and learn to feel and experience your emotions. A trauma response is being afraid to ask for what you need. Don’t be afraid.