What do we currently know about the Impact of Trauma on Mental Health?
Today, we have unprecedented knowledge of the impact of trauma on mental health and physical well-being. This is most often seen and acknowledged when a devastating event happens, potentially resulting in after-effects such as PTSD. If we have experienced such an event ourselves, we are very aware of trauma’s after-effects. However, the impact of ‘trauma’ happening within the formative years of childhood has far more devastating effects on mental health, its impact is far less acknowledged but far more understood than any other time in history. The following outlines how childhood experiences shape our mental and emotional well-being and relationships.
Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Studies
Well-known “ACE studies” from the late 90’s documented how a higher incidence of ‘adverse childhood experiences’ correlate with a significantly higher risk for substance abuse, mental health issues, intimate partner violence and a host of life-threatening health issues https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/adverse-childhood-experiences-aces.aspx. These studies show that ‘trauma’ is more far-reaching than a single life-threatening experience and shows we are all affected by trauma within our formative years to some degree, it’s the degree that makes the difference.
An expert in childhood trauma, John Briere provided a broader definition of trauma: “an event is traumatic if it is extremely upsetting, at least temporarily overwhelms the individual’s internal resources, and produces lasting psychological symptoms” (2013, p. 8). This definition is compelling when we consider today’s avalanche of mental health issues. It can also lead us to consider what happened in my own life experiences that have potentially left me struggling with anxiety, depression, addictions, and/or relationship issues.
Our Attachment History
Psychology’s attachment studies are conclusive in recognizing the importance of bonding and nurturing between infants and caregivers https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html. Where there is responsive, attentive, attuned loving care from caregivers, the infant experiences pleasure and human contact woven together. This is the neurobiological “glue” or bonding that provides the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy relationships. This bonding is provided by the powerful human reward for attention, approval, and affection from those we love and respect. Opposite to this is the most powerful pain we experience, the loss of that attention, approval, and affection, the most obvious example being the death of a loved one. “Attachment is the memory “template” for human-to-human bonds as this provides a primary ‘mental model’ of human relationships” (Siegel, 2003).
Therefore, we are all profoundly influenced by relationships within our developmental years and by the type of caregiving we received; whether it was kind, attuned parenting; whether ‘traumatic’ or life experiences out of the caregiver’s control disrupted their ability to provide attuned care or whether there was inconsistent, frequently disrupted, abusive, or neglectful “care”. The latter two potentially overwhelming the infant’s internal resources, resulting in defensive or maladaptive responses which continue to disrupt relationships throughout the lifespan.
Our Life Story
Simple life events can also have a profound effect on our mental health, well-being, and relationships. We know that trauma is not limited to life-threatening experiences. It also includes maternal stress which directly affects the foetus and infants, who experience stress well before the brain develops the capacity for consciousness, all of which can disrupt growth and development. Research shows the loss of maternal presence, engagement and vitality are stressful and even life-threatening to infants. For a young child, trauma can be experienced in separation from parents, from looking into the eyes of a depressed mother, or from being in a household with high levels of marital tension. In children and adolescents, chronic stress and trauma accompany incessant bullying, disrupted learning in schooling for the behaviorally challenged or dyslexic is stressful, or for children taking on adult roles in caring for alcoholic, mentally unwell or challenged parents in homes. For all ages, unsafe relationships, chronic loneliness, constant shame or feeling of failure has the same impact (Cozolino, 2005). The list goes on… and must include the effects of societal discrimination that does not treat all people equally regardless of gender, race, or religion. These events shape us as to their emotional impact and as we weave meaning or beliefs about ourselves and others into our lives, this creates the story we tell ourselves and believe to be true!
Moving from “ME to WE”
Each person is unique with individual ‘tolerance’ to any potentially traumatic experience. However, no person on the planet has a perfect attachment history or has not had painful experiences or a degree of ‘trauma’ throughout their formative childhood years that has not left indelible impressions on their heart, mind, and soul shaping who they are, and how they react to others and life’s challenges. Neuroscience continues to provide extensive knowledge and understanding of how our minds and bodies are shaped by experience, particularly traumatic experiences. Cozolino (2010) beautifully summarized this: “Our brain embodies the environment that shapes it … our neural architecture is the tangible expression of our learning history”.
Understanding how adverse experiences have shaped our own life crucially impacts how we approach others. Where we experienced empathy in times of distress, we can now react with empathy, moving us to connection and helpful actions towards others. A lack of empathy or where we were shamed, blamed, or belittled, we learn to hide ourselves, to minimize, ignore, or deny our own pain, we learn to live in denial, or we project our pain onto others, seeking someone else to blame or shame. This is also the breeding ground of narcissism, where toxic patterns and lack of caregiving result in self-needs that are painfully over-inflated, inexhaustibly unquenchable and others’ needs expendable.
Alternatively, we can become overly sensitive to others’ distress, empathizing deeply with their pain, we are mobilized to rescue, heal, or fix others; we disregard boundaries and our needs for self-care, all the while unaware it’s our own pain driving this need. Many in the helping professions are driven by this dynamic, with resulting ‘burn-out’ a legacy of unprocessed trauma. Whatever traumatic experience from the past that has not been processed and understood as to its impact on our soul, leaves a wound that can fester and drive unconscious needs or addictions that can impact our relationships and quality of life!
Our Collective Well-Being … An Individual Responsibility
How we are wounded individually also adds to the collective trauma within our community … because how we individually react to and treat others matters, it defines us as community! We are the sum of the individual parts; if one part is affected, all are affected. To make change happen, we MUST start with ourselves. Firstly, by seeking to understand how our past experiences are embedded in our brain and body in disowned and painful emotions abandoned in the past but present whenever we judge others or attempt to rescue or ‘fix’ their problems without first seeking to understand their world with empathy and compassion. Only when we have dealt with our own pain with understanding and self-compassion, we can make ‘space’ for a more compassionate understanding and acceptance of others, which in turn creates the kind of environment in which all thrive.
My Counselling Space
My personal experiences and training as a counsellor have led me to understand how deeply trauma impacts, leaving deep emotional scars on individual lives and on our collective well-being. My own experience of ‘burnout’ from working in the helping professions and needing to understand and find healing for my wounded soul has enabled my desire to journey with people to understand their own trauma history and relationship pain. My approach with each of my clients is to create a safe and healing relationship space that allows each person to uncover hidden wounds embedded in the body and mind, to speak their truth and discover inner strengths that have enabled their survival despite adversity. Within this supportive framework, together we can reframe the impact of trauma, reimagine the story of your life and relationships, and allow yourself to move from surviving to thriving!
- “Principles of Trauma Therapy” John Briere & Catherine Scott, 2013.
- “Parenting from the Inside out” Dan Siegel, 2003.
- “The Impact of Trauma on the Brain” Louis J. Cozolino, 2005.
- “The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy. Healing the Social Brain”. Louis Cozolino, 2010.
Author: Lenore Hall, M. Couns, RN, B.Occ Th.
To make an appointment with Lenore please can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422 or M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or select here for Online Booking.