Trauma is the imprint left by a traumatic experience on the mind, brain and body. It impacts not only those who are directly affected by it, but also leaves traces on those surrounding them – their friends, families, and communities. At SHALVA, our therapists have a deep understanding of the traumatic effects of domestic abuse and guide our clients towards healing.
DEFINITION OF TRAUMA AND ITS EFFECTS
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event.” Trauma is not the event that happens, as much as trauma is our emotional response. A traumatic event leaves us feeling unable to function because trauma actually changes the brain. And once the traumatic event is over, our body continues to relive it. Traumatic memories can remain as horrible and vivid as when they were formed. Following a traumatic experience, our brain can get stuck in a survival state where we continue to react to things as if we are still in danger. We remain in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze.
This is what happens to our SHALVA clients, and even some of their loved ones who are desperately trying to provide support. When stuck in survival mode, they find themselves reliving the event of being screamed at or physically harmed. Feeling like they’re constantly threatened, they look for potential harm or abuse everywhere. This is an exhausting way to live.
Even after leaving an abusive relationship, survivors can become triggered by things in the news, something someone says to them, or even certain sounds, smells, or thoughts can remind them of a traumatic event. Reliving the abuse feels terrifying and can be confusing when it happens without warning, even after years of counseling.
WHAT ARE THE LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF TRAUMA?
After a traumatic experience, our brain can get stuck in a survival state where we continue to react to things as if we are still in danger. The problem is that while in a survival state, we lose the ability to align our feelings and thoughts with our current situation. We struggle to experience pleasure and joy. And we may constantly find ourselves reliving the initial trauma, leading to feelings of anxiety, depression and hyperarousal which puts us on constant alert for danger, self-loathing, nightmares and flashbacks, and a fog that keeps us from staying on task and from fully engaging with others.
According to psychcentral.com, around 20% of people who experience a traumatic event will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and many others might still have subthreshold symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Other long-term effects of trauma for survivors of domestic violence are:
- experiencing shame and guilt,
- blaming themselves for the abuse,
- having low self-worth, which causes a mental loop of negative thoughts about oneself,
- finding it difficult to trust their own instincts and abilities,
- feeling isolated and unable to trust others, and
- having difficulty maintaining relationships with family, friends and new romantic partners.
Trauma robs us of the feeling that we are in charge of ourselves and can also create numerous long lasting physical health issues. Trauma is the imprint left by a traumatic experience on the mind, brain, and body. Ferial Nijem, a past SHALVA luncheon speaker, describes her experience here:
RECOGNIZING ABUSE-RELATED TRAUMA
Since it can be difficult to recognize a relationship as abusive, sometimes a person’s physical symptoms are the first indicators of abuse related trauma. The scars of past trauma extend beyond emotional pain and physical injury and can include fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, joint or muscle pain, headaches, and palpitations.
Similarly, the emotional effects of trauma may be warning signs of an abusive relationship. These can include:
- drinking or taking other drugs
- eating disorders
- feeling like you don’t want to live or you can’t go on with your life
- feelings of self-hate and low self-esteem
- fearing people and relationships.
HOW DOES DOMESTIC ABUSE IMPACT FRIENDS AND FAMILY
For family and friends, listening day-in and day-out to others’ trauma can begin to make it feel like their own trauma and can lead to feelings of helplessness, fear, guilt or remorse. They can also begin to feel the same kind of emotional and physical symptoms, like fatigue, anxiety and trouble sleeping. Providing compassion and care to others takes a toll and can leave us feeling overwhelmed. For this reason, it becomes especially important for loved ones to have their own support systems and prioritize taking care of themselves.
HOW DO YOU HEAL FROM TRAUMA?
Trauma robs us of the feeling that we have control of ourselves. And while allowing survivors to talk about their trauma is helpful, for real change to occur, the body needs to learn that the shocking, devastating, or dangerous experience has passed and be able to remain in the present.
We work with clients to develop tools to manage their trauma reactions, including ways to feel more grounded and better able to remain in the present. SHALVA therapists encourage clients to practice self-care and learn to nurture themselves, as a way of recognizing and honoring their own value. With all clients, though, the most important message we can offer is simply, “I believe you. I’m here and you don’t have to go through this alone.”
Kimberly Shapps, JD, LCSW, ICDVP has been a certified domestic violence counselor with SHALVA since 2005. She began her career as an attorney in the public interest sector, representing victims of domestic violence in civil proceedings and was the Clinic Legal Director at Pro Bono Advocates. In her spare time, she enjoys taking long walks with her dog.
Resources: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, Penguin Books; Reprint edition (September 8, 2015).