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Trauma and PTSD: Its Impact and Outcomes

“A child who has experienced trauma will sometimes show they feel connected to an attachment figure by releasing all their big emotions in their presence. What may appear as disconnection may actually be a sign of trust.”

J. Milburn

What is a traumatic event?

A traumatic event is very different from a distressing or emotionally upsetting moment in time. A traumatic event engenders deep feelings of mistrust, terror (terrified of losing one’s life or impending doom), confusion, panic, and helplessness. The sensation of losing complete control and gasping for air can be a regular occurrence for an individual who has been traumatised and goes on to experience panic disorder. There will be strong physical responses associated with highly emotionally charged emotions.

At Addcounsel, we recognise that most individuals seeking treatment for an addiction and/or addictive behaviour, and/or an eating disorder, have experienced at least one significant traumatic event, while some have endured years of ongoing trauma. The effects of trauma on the human brain can be substantial, ranging from hypervigilance to being unexpectedly overwhelmed by the flight, fight, faint or freeze states of consciousness.

J. Douglas, MD, writes on the impact of traumatic stress: “Brain areas implicated in the stress response include the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in these brain areas. Traumatic stress is associated with increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses to subsequent stressors.”

What is a childhood traumatic event?

A child will likely experience a wide range of distressing emotions from hunger, anger, and loneliness, to extreme tiredness which are for the most part perfectly natural. Separating from a parent as an infant can provokepainful emotions which for some, can lead to a traumatic event, but usually after a child has adapted to a change of environment and care givers, calm ensues (unless permanently separated or over a long period of time). We can see this in a good local Montessori school where infants transitionand settle into their new environment in a relatively short period of time, having been nurtured and welcomed by warm-spirited teachers.

A childhood trauma, however, goes beyond the realms of manageable childhood distress. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network describes a traumatic event as follows: “A traumatic event is a frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity. Witnessing a traumatic event that threatens life or physical security of a loved one can also be traumatic. This is particularly important for young children as their sense of safety depends on the perceived safety of their attachment figures.” The author continues: “Traumatic experiences can initiate strong emotions and physical reactions that can persist long after the event.”

Childhood trauma can also be defined as ACE or Adverse Childhood Experiences by Child Services and for safeguarding purposes in the Early Years educational sector. ACEs are common and the effects can be incremental over time. 61% of adults have experienced at least one ACE and 16% have suffered 4 or more ACEs.  Females and several racial/ethnic minority groups are at greater risk of experiencing 4 or more ACEs.

Many people have little or no awareness that exposure to ACEs is associated with increased risk of mental and physical health problems across a lifespan. ACEs can include violence, abuse, growing up in an environment affected by family mental health or substance misuse problems. Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and seriously affect how the body reacts to stress.

Is a childhood traumatic incident linked to addiction?

ACEs are very common among people dependent on a mood-altering substance and/or suffering with a behavioural addiction (a process addiction). Many drug and alcohol dependents will go on to have a dual diagnosis. However, trauma and addiction are two separate conditions. They may very well be experienced simultaneously, and while it’s certainly true that ACEs may result in an individual using mood-altering substances to self-soothe/self-medicate, addiction is a separate, complicated, brain disorder. In other words, experiencing childhood trauma doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual will go on to develop alcoholism or other addictions.

With respect to long-term recovery from an addiction/addictive behaviour, an individual has a much better chance of staying on course if they can work through their childhood trauma with a competent and compassionate health professional (when appropriate to do so).

Addcounsel has identified the most common causes of childhood trauma as follows:

  • Physical, emotional, and psychological abuse
  • Neglect (physical, emotional, and psychological)
  • Sexual abuse/sexual assault
  • Living in a chaotic dysfunctional household (with an alcoholic/drug addict/adult suffering from untreated mental illness)
  • Domestic violence
  • Cyber bullying and bullying in person
  • War and terrorism
  • Divorce and separation
  • Stress associated with extreme poverty
  • Stress associated with growing up in an ultra-high-net-worth environment
  • The death of a loved one
  • Severe and/or life-threatening injury

The US National Library of Medicine writes on the effects of childhood trauma: “The detrimental effects of childhood abuse on healthy development and psychological functioning are well documented. Exposure to child abuse is associated with many maladaptive outcomes including risk for the development of a range of psychiatric conditions. Prospective studies of maltreated children have shown increased rates of depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other trauma-related psychopathology.”

The author continues: “One important factor that may, at least in part, drive this relationship between exposure to childhood abuse and the development of psychopathology in adulthood is emotion dysregulation.”

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a complicated disorder which develops in the human brain, after experiencing a terrifying and frightening, potentially life threating experience. PTSD can occur after an isolated incident, whereas complex PTSD follows a series of continuous traumatic events. A person with PTSD can develop complex PTSD depending on their circumstances, and the environment they are exposed to.

American Psychiatric Association describes the experience of PTSD as follows: “People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended.” The author continues describing the consequences: “They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear, or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people. People with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch.”

Here are some of the symptoms associated with PTSD:

  • Intrusive memories such as recurrent distressing memories of the isolated incident
  • Flashbacks/reliving the traumatic event over and over again
  • Trauma related nightmares and sleep disturbances often leading to insomnia
  • Distress resulting in mood swings, rage, and severe emotional disturbance
  • Panic brought on by a trigger which causes recall of the event. This can be visual, aural, or olfactory
  • Directing vitriol and ill-feeling inwards
  • Feeling helpless and hopeless about the future
  • Avoiding talking about the traumatic incident
  • Isolating and continuously withdrawing from family, friends, and social engagements
  • Experiencing severe depression and anxiety/panic attacks
  • Impairment of short-term memory due to severe stress
  • Developing a dependency on alcohol and/or mood-altering drugs, or succumbing to a behavioural addiction. Temporary relief may be sought in alcohol and strong pain killers
  • Hypervigilance/being on high alert for danger or a potential re-occurrence of the event
  • Perspiration and trembling 

What’s the link between childhood trauma and PTSD?

If an ACE is severe enough, it could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. If a child can receive treatment immediately after the event and have an appropriate outlet to grieve and be nurtured, it could very well lessen the impact of long-term PTSD. Unfortunately, all too often children will go undiagnosed until years after the trauma has occurred, which will often have a serious impact on brain development and lead to untreated post-traumatic stress disorder across a lifespan. For those who in childhood experience repetitive and prolonged traumatic incidents, complex PTSD might be deemed a more appropriate diagnosis.

Thankfully, those who have been fortunate enough to get a diagnosis for both PTSD and complex PTSD, or who have self-diagnosed after recognising their symptoms, can go on to live fulfilling lives in adulthood with the appropriate treatment.

Contact us today

At Addcounsel, we understand the impact of trauma and PTSD, and how it impacts everyday life. Without the appropriate treatment, trauma and PTSD will compromise interpersonal relations and will eventually have a severe impact on physical and mental health. You don’t have to go through this alone. Our specialists have developed a “whole person” approach to trauma and PTSD treatment, addressing the symptoms, triggers, and causes of your condition. We’ll help you develop effective, lifelong strategies to manage trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, ensuring a sustained and long-term recovery.

We offer treatment for addiction at one of our private, luxury rehab facilities in Knightsbridge, Chelsea, and Mayfair, London, which take place in an intimate, one-to-one setting – no groups, no other patients. Your comfort, safety and privacy are our priority. Contact us today to start your recovery.

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