Wounds That Won’t Heal: The Pervasive Effects of Trauma
It is very common to acquire scars during childhood. In fact, most people can point to a scar on their body and immediately recall how and where they acquired that scar. Similar to physical scars, trauma can be traced back to an isolated incident or a series of events that occurred in the past. However, trauma differs from physical scars in that some people are unaware of their psychological scars and, more importantly, the amount of impact these psychological scars have on their everyday lives.
Traditionally, trauma is often mentioned when discussing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder developed from experiencing a traumatic event, with much of the literature surrounding PTSD focusing on the sufferings of veterans. The narratives typically describe the experience of night terrors engendered from horrific scenarios experienced at war. Though similar in psychopathology, less attention has been given to survivors of rape or even individuals who were tormented by bullies during their childhood (Van Der Kolk, 2015).
Because of the limited attention is given to non-combat related trauma, some people may feel that their traumatic experiences pale in comparison to those who have experienced war. Thus, these individuals may choose not to seek professional help because they may feel that the magnitude of their traumatic experience does not warrant the same type of treatment as those who suffer from post-combat PTSD. Moreover, some people who have experienced a traumatic experience may not even be aware that their psyche has been severely wounded by an event such as being bullied on the school bus, at least not until they become adults and realize how even maintaining a platonic relationship can be extremely challenging for them.
Living with trauma is much different than what is portrayed in the media. If you try searching for “PTSD in the movies,” you will find a plethora of war movies, such as Rambo or the Invisible War. Obviously, not everyone who has experienced trauma has a background like Jason Bourne. Rather, most people who have experienced trauma go on to live fully functional lives. Unfortunately, most of the issues arise when individuals affected by trauma begin to create meaningful relationships.
Trauma affects our perception, which determines the way we interpret information (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 2014). It also affects our hormonal responses, which cause our bodies to be in a constant state of hypervigilance (Van Der Kolk, 2015). In other words, the body does not understand that the danger has passed and continues to live in the same state that it was during the initial traumatic experience (Van Der Kolk, 2015). As you can imagine, someone who is experiencing these symptoms may have a difficult time trying to function with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Relationships require a lot of communication, and if that communication is not being perceived correctly, then the message is lost. For example, a college student who was neglected as a child may have a more difficult time when discussing topics like moving in with his girlfriend. If his girlfriend tells him that she would like to wait until they both graduate school before they move in together, he may see this as a sign that she does not want to move in with him because she does not want to be with him, even though she had no intention of ending the relationship. During this conversation, he feels his heart pumping, and he becomes nauseous. Because of the intense physical responses to his girlfriend’s words, he begins to believe that she plans on dumping him. Why else would his body react this way? Unfortunately, he is unaware that at that moment his body is not responding to his girlfriend’s words, but rather it is responding to the feeling of loneliness he felt as a child.
How does one begin to heal these wounds? Moreover, are these psychological scars everlasting like physical scars?
Currently, there are numerous interventions available to treat trauma-related behavioral issues (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 2014). One of the more popular treatments used to mitigate trauma-induced distress is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). In 1987, Francine Shapiro, who was at that time a graduate student in psychology, discovered EMDR. The theory of EMDR is that the mind inherently tries to heal itself similar to how physical scars heal themselves. Trauma disrupts the “healing” process, imprinting itself into the immune system. Flashback, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and stress-causing situations trigger the traumatic experience. Through guided eye movement and mental imagery, EMDR activates the mind’s internal processing system which allows the individual to correctly process the traumatic experience. As a result, the traumatic experience is desensitized and replaced with positive cognitions, such as “I deserve to be happy, and it was not my fault that I was assaulted.” Although EMDR is still relatively novel compared to other traditional psychotherapies, countless amounts of people have indicated experiencing tremendous relief. In a recent meta-analysis conducted by Lee and Cuijpers (2013), effect sizes across three different groups were extremely robust: treatment studies (Cohens d = .41); laboratory studies (d = .74); and non-therapy studies (d = .91).
Though numerous studies have bolstered EMDR’s clinical efficiency and practicality, there is literature that still challenges its effectiveness. EMDR may not be able to erase traumatic memories, but it can positively impact the way individuals will view their psychological scars, which can provide them with relief and allow them to go forward and build meaningful relationships with the people around them. That, in itself, may be the best source of evidence for EMDR.
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2014). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services.
Lee, C. W., & Cuijpers, P. (2013). A meta-analysis of the contribution of eye movements in processing emotional memories. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 44(2), 231-239.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
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