Stressful events, such as abuse, police brutality, domestic violence, accidents and natural disasters, can have a profound impact on survivors and their families. Even when the traumatic episode is not overt or sudden, victims of exploitation, injustice, or oppression can experience changes in thoughts, feelings and behavior.
Trauma can result from a one-time event (acute) or from ongoing circumstances (chronic), such as an abusive relationship. The type and severity of symptoms help clinicians understand how patients process the traumatic event. Some common symptoms of distress caused by stress or trauma are:
- Nightmares or intrusive thoughts about the incident
- Jumpiness or exaggerated startle response
- Going out of the way to avoid anything that brings what happened to mind
- Inability to stop blaming oneself for what happened
- Feeling numb or detached from loved ones, activities or surroundings
Stress and trauma: Risk and protective factors
Depending on various factors, such as inherited traits, environment and circumstances, each individual processes stress and trauma differently. Risk factors increase the chance of having negative effects from trauma, while protective factors help shield people from the negative effects of traumatic experiences, and promote resilience. For instance, strong family support constitutes a protective factor, whereas, social isolation is a risk factor.
A common mental illness that can result from either acute or chronic trauma is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of the symptoms of PTSD include depression, anxiety, jumpiness, emotional numbness and avoidance of things that remind them of the trauma. During intervention, part of the PTSD trauma treatment focuses on strengthening protective factors and reducing risk factors.
People experiencing painful thoughts and feelings want to feel better as quickly as possible. To get back on the right track, people often tend to “self-medicate” using drugs or alcohol that help provide temporary relief. However, masking one’s trauma symptoms prevents one’s brain from processing the experience in a healthy way and this can lead to addiction.
Drug and alcohol addiction increases women’s vulnerability to even more trauma and loss, but trauma and addiction treatment can help break the cycle. A comprehensive assessment and an integrated treatment can help promote full and lasting recovery.