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The effects of TRAUMA & STRESS on physical & emotional health

When considering the word “trauma,” what is the first thing that comes to mind? I’d wager that most people equate this word with PTSD and military personnel. Still others might associate trauma with physical or sexual abuse or assault. All of these are correct. However, these examples are only three out of many types of traumatic experiences. Other types of traumatic experiences include: emotional abuse and psychological maltreatment, neglect and abandonment, forced displacement or separation, experiencing a major natural or man-made disaster, suffering a serious accident, and being a victim of- or even a witness to- violence. Needless to say, the effects of trauma on a person’s physical, behavioral, and mental health can be quite significant.

Without having any intention to minimize the effects of trauma, I want to make this post as informative and relatable as possible. Therefore, I am going to compare trauma as being similar to major stress. You’ve all experienced major stress before, am I right? Try to think back to that time in your life when you experienced something so stressful that you didn’t know how you would be able to overcome it. From a physiological standpoint, can you remember how your body reacted to that situation? Perhaps you had difficulty sleeping or you suffered daily headaches, neck pain, indigestion, or nausea. Perhaps your heart rate and blood pressure skyrocketed or you were experiencing shortness of breath. Over time, these physiological symptoms can have longstanding negative effects on your health. In fact, when these symptoms are left untreated, you are more likely to develop a medical condition such as Coronary Artery Disease (CAD), which just so happens to be the leading cause of death in the United States. Coronary Artery Disease and other vascular disorders can lead to heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and heart failure.

Now let’s take a look at the behavioral effects of trauma and stress... We can probably all agree that not everyone copes with stress in a healthy or effective manner all of the time. Even though we know that throwing back a couple of beers won’t fix the problem at hand, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs (including marijuana, prescription medications, or illegal substances) can quickly turn into real addictions and increase your probability of developing a medical condition such as cirrhosis of the liver or pancreatitis. And unless you weren’t born in this century, we also know that cigarette smoking- which is often used to relieve stress- can lead to serious health problems down the road as well. Of course, I’m referring to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer. But what about the less talked about behavioral effects of trauma and stress? Though maybe not as obvious as smoking and drinking, some people self-medicate by engaging in other types of harmful behaviors. Let’s consider over-eating, for example, which can lead to obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. Or how about sexual risk-taking and self-injurious behaviors? I could argue that any one of these maladaptive coping mechanisms increases your likelihood of developing a medical condition or chronic illness.

Finally, a strong link has been established between traumatic experiences and the potential for adverse psychological outcomes. After all, direct correlations between trauma, stress, and mental health have been formally classified in the current diagnostic manual published by the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-5) under the category of Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders. These disorders include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Acute Stress Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder, and Adjustment Disorders. Other diagnoses, such as Dissociative Disorders and Somatic Symptom Disorders are also associated with stress and trauma, not to mention depression, anxiety, insomnia, and sexual dysfunction. The list is extensive. You can therefore imagine how these mental health conditions might affect a person’s relationships, sense of self, and ability to hold a job.

A critical component of treating people who have been exposed to trauma or major stress involves the ability to create a sense of safety and stability. Whether the precipitating event lasted for a few minutes or occurred repeatedly over the course of several years, affected individuals will need time to process their experience in a supportive environment. This may take the form of psychotherapy, during which protective factors should be identified and topics such as trust, shame, and self-worth should be gradually explored. Risk factors, such as the behavioral effects of trauma and stress that I listed above (e.g. substance abuse), will likely require intervention and treatment as well. Last, making progress through goal-setting and planning for the future are sure to increase feelings of self-efficacy and create a sense of empowerment. In the meantime, if you- or someone you know- is in need of immediate assistance, please don’t hesitate to call 911 or contact any of the national crisis hotlines that are available to provide you with local resources.

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