- Many people don't know the true impacts of PTSD and complex trauma.
- Trauma can impact a person in several ways, creating major social, emotional, and occupational impairment.
- Trauma and complex trauma aren't life sentences; they're treatable with EMDR and other therapeutic approaches.
Trauma is a wound; we just can't see it as clearly as physical wounds. It manifests in other, more covert ways. If we understood trauma better as a society, we'd heal quicker and suffer less. Fortunately, the below effects are treatable using EMDR therapy and other modalities; they're not a life sentence. Here's what many don't know.
1. Complex Trauma
Many haven't heard of complex trauma (CT). It surpasses PTSD usually in symptom-severity. It comprises of significant difficulty with emotional regulation, relationships, self-identity, and fragmentation of the self.
Although the effects of trauma are not in the events themselves, but in how the body and mind register the events, CT usually arises from traumatic events occurring in an extended and continuous fashion, usually early in life. It is usually inflicted interpersonally, by humans, instead of natural disasters or car accidents—often by the caregivers and attachment figures who are supposed to be supportive and protective, in which the victim has virtually no chance of escaping (Herman, 2015).
2. Psychological Impact of Trauma
The after-effects of a traumatic experience tend to dominate the lives of most coping with diagnosable PTSD or complex trauma. The lack of connection, intrusions, avoidance, trouble concentrating, irregular sleep, and hypervigilance can become so upsetting that they create major social, emotional, and occupational impairment for most sufferers.
This involuntary re-experiencing of trauma may be the mind’s attempt to integrate and process the disturbing content toward a resolution that feels complete, emphasizing the adaptive purpose of trauma symptoms. Unfortunately, as the mind strives to resolve the traumatic event, its efforts can become counterproductive; they may cause an automatic reliving of the traumatic event that can involuntarily reproduce its most horrifying aspects and amplify one’s risk for exposure to future traumatic events (Herman, 2015).
3. Damage to the Mind's Information Processing Systems
PTSD rewires the brain’s information processing system to interpret unthreatening stimuli as threatening. PTSD makes it more difficult for sufferers to attend to new or essentially non-threatening information and regulate one’s attention and concentration (Van der Kolk, 2015). From an EMDR viewpoint, this is why traumatic memories are considered to be stored "dysfunctionally," in a disjointed and disintegrated way, separate from adaptive information and other positive experiences or self-knowledge.
The disintegration of information is largely considered to be what prevents a given traumatic event from resolving naturally on its own, and what makes specific aspects of traumatic memories detached from the person’s sense of self. In this sense, traumatic memories become essentially housed psychologically as “timeless emotion and bodily sensation” (Cvetek, 2008, p. 3). Therefore, even years and decades later, traumatic events can have significant psychological and physiological implications, covered below.
4. Trauma and Interpersonal Relationships
Trauma tends to augment our survival need for close attachment relationships with people who are accessible, responsive, and emotionally engaged. However, PTSD can erode the development and felt sense of safety and trust that promote and maintain secure attachment. Deep connection is what most helps heal trauma and a violation of connection is the root of trauma. What a contradicting predicament!
Untreated trauma tends to weaken our bonds with others, not only in an interactional sense, but also their subjective identity, the purpose of relationships, and their emotional intimacy. The toll untreated trauma can take on relationships can generalize not only to one’s immediate attachment relationships but also their relation to their social network and community. It can result in trauma survivors urgently craving emotional intimacy, yet recoiling from their intimate relationships simultaneously. It can also become discouraging and confusing for the partners of trauma victims, who are prone to experiencing helplessness and shame as they witness their partner’s pain and helplessness (Johnson, 2002; Shapiro, 2017), which is secondary trauma.
5. Secondary Trauma
Many partners, family members, and sometimes friends of trauma sufferers experience secondary trauma. Secondary trauma is when the person who has not endured the traumatic event(s) experiences trauma symptoms related to their loved one’s traumatic experience and related symptoms (Figley, 2013). This is also why it is vital for survivors to share their experiences and their effects with their loved ones.
Because trauma in one partner reliably predicts trauma symptoms in their partner in couples and sometimes families, the resulting relationship distress can jeopardize even the most resilient relationships. Any form of relational distress can also worsen one’s trauma symptoms. Even committed and loving couples can become susceptible to a series of feedback loops where trauma symptoms aggravate relationship or couple distress and vice versa.
6. Destroyed Beliefs and Assumptions
Although not true for all sufferers, untreated trauma can alter an individual’s sense of self as deserving of compassion, honesty, and respect, and the world as fundamentally predictable, fair, and safe. Trauma can also challenge one’s sense of personal agency, connection to others, identity, and overall autonomy (Briere & Scott, 2006), and can lead to powerlessness, regression to a child state of functioning, self-doubt, and shame.
7. Physiological Impact of Trauma
Untreated trauma can alter the functioning of the autonomic, endocrine, and central nervous systems. This can result in structural brain changes in the limbic system and hippocampus, the regions that process memories and emotions. Untreated trauma can also modify the functioning of neurotransmitters responsible for regulating stress responses, epinephrine, and norepinephrine (Perry, 2009). For instance, brain images show that when people diagnosed with PTSD have flashbacks, the regions linked to language and communication are inactive, which provides convincing evidence that untreated trauma can impair linguistic coding (Van der Kolk, 2015). Thus, for people struggling with PTSD, their brains may regress to a limbic-system-driven state of primitive functioning, which can hinder the neocortex's logical and higher-order processing associated with healthy psychological functioning (Perry, 2009; Perry & Winfrey, 2021).
All seven symptoms and effects expounded above are treatable through EMDR therapy and other therapies, as mentioned.
With all this in mind, when you see someone suffering, instead of asking, "what's wrong with this person?" a more relevant question would be "what happened to this person?"
Cvetek, R. (2008). EMDR treatment of distressful experiences that fail to meet the criteria for PTSD. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 2(1), 2-14.
Figley, C. R. (2013). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. Routledge.
Herman, J. (2015). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence—from domestic abuse to political terror. (3rd ed). Hachette UK.
Johnson, S. M. (2002). Emotionally focused couple therapy with trauma survivors: Strengthening attachment bonds. Guilford Press.
Perry, B. D. (2009). Examining child maltreatment through a neurodevelopmental lens: Clinical applications of the neurosequential model of therapeutics. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14(4), 240-255.
Perry, B. D, & Winfrey, O. (2021). What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Flatiron Books.
Shapiro, F. (2017). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): Basic principles, protocols, and procedures. (3rd ed.). Guilford Press.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.