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Trauma, Trust, and Time

When trauma undermines trust, it's hard to see a brighter future.

Republica/pixabay CC0
Source: Republica/pixabay CC0

Major trauma has deep and long-lasting effects on those who have suffered through it, changing the ways in which they view themselves and others. As researchers are learning, trauma leaves different marks under different circumstances. Its consequences can depend on who someone is, what kind of trauma she has endured, whether or not that trauma was deliberately inflicted upon her, and how she has been supported (or not) since then.

Many of us are fortunate to have escaped major trauma in our lives, but if someone you care about has come through a terrible experience, how might that affect them? Unsurprisingly, people who have been deliberately tormented can be deeply damaged in their ability to trust. Trust is fundamental to even the most ordinary interactions with other people, so damage in this area has far-reaching consequences.

In a fascinating article, philosophers Matthew Ratcliffe and Benedict Smith teamed up with psychiatrist Mark Ruddell to seek a deeper understanding of how an inability to trust in the wake of trauma can affect even our sense of time, and our relation to the future.

Most of us see ourselves as having a life story, as we find our way through the years, even if that story is not as exciting as a John Grisham thriller. We look forward to specific events, both big and small, we have hope for a brighter tomorrow and a sense of open possibilities. But trauma is sometimes said to create a "foreshortened future": people no longer understand their future as meaningful, and the story is at an end even if physical life continues.

Ratcliffe, Ruddell, and Smith connect this hopelessness about the future with a rupture in trust. They show how lack of trust does not just involve active distrust in other people. It is also a general attitude to the world at large, a lack of confidence in oneself as well as in others, and an inability to be open to what the future may bring. And lack of trust changes the colour and shape of our thoughts about the future: It doesn’t just affect our predictions, it affects how we feel.

As the collaborators write: "A confident style of anticipation gives way to pervasive and non-localized uncertainty and doubt, and a sense of danger predominates." No wonder people who have suffered trauma at the hands of others find great difficulty in seeing any light at the end of the tunnel.

How best can professionals or friends try to give help or support? Ratcliffe and his colleagues do not offer any easy routes to recovery. But they do suggest that restoring even a basic degree of trust must be a priority, through small and gradual steps. Rather than focusing on specific future events or possibilities, or trying to provide factual "correction" to a pessimistic outlook, we can help by allowing the person to slowly grow her sense of security in the world around her. By regaining trust, the future itself can be regained.


Matthew Ratcliffe, Mark Ruddell, Benedict Smith: 'What is a 'sense of foreshortened future?' A phenomenological study of trauma, trust and time', Frontiers in Psychology (2014), 5:1026. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01026

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