The very word trauma evokes images of major events such as war, rape, kidnapping, and abuse. Natural disasters such as floods, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes and windstorms affect thousands of people every year, causing loss of life, loss of home and leaving economic damage in their wake.
When traumatic experiences occur, they often leave mental and physical scars that may feel impossible to overcome. Our sense of safety and predictability is challenged and this may trigger strong physical and emotional reactions.
The Truth about Complex Trauma
Complex trauma describes the dual problem of children’s exposure to traumatic events that occur within the caregiving system, the social environment that is supposed to be the source of safety and stability in a child’s life. Early experiences such as emotional abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, physical abuse, witnessing unpredictable domestic violence and repeated abandonment, often leave a child unable to develop appropriate language and verbal skills.
Children whose parents continuously dismiss or reject them learn to disregard or distrust their emotions, relationships and even their own bodies. Parental invalidation generates helplessness and hopelessness. The connection (bond) between a parent and a child is broken; the child is then forced to act “as though the trauma never happened.”
Exposure to Adversity Early in Life
Other traumatic events such as losing a parent to death or divorce can also leave emotional and psychological scars. Growing up in an alcoholic or addicted home or in any other environment where children are taught to bury their feelings causes intense feelings of fear and pain.
Children who have been exposed to severe adversity early in life are at increased risk of developing mental health problems, including drug and alcohol dependence. What happens within the family unit early in a child’s life will have a huge influence over them later in life.
Self-medicating with Drugs and Alcohol
What most of these young people have in common is the wide range of psychoactive substances used to self-medicate, a way of drowning out emotional and psychological pain. This form of mood management can and often does lead to addiction and the disease of addiction is progressive.
Drug and alcohol use allows a person to disconnect from their feelings rather than think about or relive the traumatic event. By using drugs, alcohol or other substances, feelings of fear and powerlessness, depression and those ever-present intrusive memories are dampened. Likewise, guilt or rage is avoided, thus the cycle of addictive or impulsive behavior begins.
When Psychological Trauma Goes Untreated
The effects of untreated psychological trauma can be devastating and infiltrate nearly every aspect of an individual’s life. Trauma disrupts the body’s natural equilibrium, freezing you into a state of hyperarousal and fear.
The nature of the traumatic event, the level of social and emotional support, past traumatic experiences, ones personality type, and the presence or non-presence of sound coping skills plays a large role in whether one will be more susceptible to trauma.
It is not a sign of emotional weakness or a character flaw to have flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, sleep difficulties or tremendous stress after witnessing a serious accident; debilitation from illness or injury; bullying; separation from home or loved one; incarceration; serious illness; loss of a loved one.
Complex trauma in early childhood can affect adults later in life. In part 2 of this blog, we will explore some of the symptoms of trauma and the feelings that are often attached to traumatic events and situations. Also revealed are some healthy coping mechanisms and therapeutic methods for survivors of trauma.