Childhood Trauma : What is Psychological Trauma?

childhood_trauma_questionnaire

Psychological trauma occurs in response to an overwhelming event/s which an individual lacks the internal and external coping mechanisms to mentally deal with; this can lead to a very protracted period (months, years or, even, a life-time) of distress and impaired emotional, cognitive and behavioural functioning.

A person suffering from severe psychological trauma will incur negative effects on the brain, e.g. an increase in the level of stress-related neurotransmitters (neurotransmitters are chemicals which allow neurons, or brain cells, to communicate with each other) and negative hormonal changes (eg an increase in the production of adrenalin).

Also, due to the fact the effects of the trauma are so overwhelming for the susceptible individual, the brain’s natural ‘stress-reversal brake system’ fails to work.

The experience of severe psychological trauma can, in this way, be seen as a PSYCHOBIOLOGICAL event resulting in activation of the sensory nervous system, the peripheral nervous system and the central nervous system (the latter refers to the brain and the spinal cord).

INTERPERSONAL TRAUMA VERSUS TRAUMA RELATED TO NATURAL DISASTERS :

The trauma response is different when it is of interpersonal origin – i.e. when a person (the perpetrator) hurts an innocent individual (the victim) – than it is when the trauma response occurs as a reaction to a natural disaster (eg an earthquake or flood).

The former results in COMPLEX-PTSD (complex post traumatic stress disorder) whereas the latter results in ‘ordinary’ PTSD (click here to read my article about the difference between complex-PTSD and ‘ordinary’ PTSD).

THE UNIQUE EFFECT OF TRAUMA ON YOUNG VICTIMS :

Because the child has very limited defenses against traumatic events (e.g. undeveloped problem-solving skills, meagre emotional and physical resources and, often, a poor social support system) s/he is especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of such events.

Furthermore, s/he will usually have no ‘place of safety’ to take refuge in and will, therefore, to all intents and purposes, be ‘trapped’ in the highly stressful home environment.

Whilst Social Services can intervene, often the child does not want this as it can disrupt the family and lead to the child being taken away from the family home. There is also the stigma to be considered and, unfortunately, in some cases, the extreme parental anger resulting from having been reported.

WHY INTERPERSONAL (PARENT/CARETAKER AGAINST CHILD) TRAUMA IS ESPECIALLY DAMAGING :

Being traumatized by the very person who is supposed to be caring, protecting and nurturing the child results, in many cases, in that child undergoing MASSIVE PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA.

The development of a SAFE ATTACHMENT between the parent/caretaker and child is of FUNDAMENTAL IMPORTANCE to the child’s emotional and psychological development and to his/her chances of growing up as a well-adjusted individual.

If such a safe attachment fails to form, the results can be catastrophic, leading to :

– identity problems

– lack of personal autonomy

– inability to control emotions

– self-hatred (click here to read my article on this)

– negative view of others

– inability to form/maintain relationships (particularly intimate relationships)

– pervasive and profound feelings of insecurity

– a feeling of being disempowered/dependent upon others

– deep and enduring feelings of irrational guilt and shame

– an inability to calm self in times of stress (sometimes referred to as an inability to ‘self-soothe’)

– reduced empathy for feelings of others

– concentration and memory problems

– feelings of being generally inept

– chronic somatic (physical) problems (eg headaches, stomach problems such as IBS)

AMBIVALENCE :

Suffering trauma caused by a parent/’caretaker’ is made even more painful and confusing because, often, the young person will feel ambivalent towards this parent/’caretaker’. To put it another way, there might exist a ‘love-hate’ relationship in which the child has conflicting and ambiguous feelings towards the adult.

Because of this, the child may lie to protect the adult or rationalize the adult’s behaviour (e.g. by irrationally and falsely believing that s/he ‘deserves’ to be the victim of the adult’s behaviour because s/he is ‘bad’; this can occur because it can be psychologically preferable for the young person to see him/herself as ‘bad’ than to mentally cope with the idea that it is, in fact, the parent who is bad).

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


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