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Unpacking How Trauma Affects Mental Health

Trauma doesn't discriminate against who it impacts. At any given time, millions of people are silently suffering from the impact of trauma. While some talk about their experiences openly, many others conceal their feelings from the rest of the world.

Research shows that 70% of adults in the U.S report experiencing at least one traumatic event during their lives. Among clients in behavioral health settings, this number jumps over 90%. Unsurprisingly, trauma remains a risk factor in almost every mental health and substance use disorder.

Understanding how trauma affects mental health is key to increased self-awareness and intervention. Let's get into what you need to know.

Increased Anxiety

Trauma can aggravate the central nervous system, making people more susceptible to hypervigilance, panic attacks, and racing thoughts. Think about it- if you experienced feeling unsafe, your body detects danger and tries to protect you.

Unfortunately, the body can start detecting danger even in benign situations. For instance, it might interpret everyone as unsafe, causing you to become guarded and withdrawn around others. Or, it might classify specific public spaces as dangerous, attributing to you feeling jumpy or restless when you're out and about.

Anxiety underlies many conditions, including anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, eating disorders, and PTSD. If untreated, it can severely compromise the quality of your life.

Increased Depression

After experiencing trauma, many people blame or shame themselves for what happened. They hold onto negative misconceptions that they are responsible for the harrowing event.

Depression often goes hand-in-hand with distressing symptoms like fatigue, excess guilt, feelings of worthlessness, and low self-esteem. These symptoms may ebb and flow, but they can make the simplest tasks feel downright impossible.

Depression symptoms are associated with compulsive behaviors like substance use and overeating. It's also closely related to self-harm and suicide.

Apathy or Numbness

Some people believe they must move on right after a trauma, leaving them little time to process what really happened. This urge usually comes from a place of good intentions- you don't want to dwell on the awful events, and you want life to return to normal as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, this strategy often backfires. Trauma recovery doesn't follow a specific timeline- even if you think you're done thinking about what happened, tethering yourself to rigid expectations can make you feel worse.

Relationship Problems

Trauma can trigger shameful feelings related to incompetence and inferiority. You might feel like you deserved what happened, or you may harbor intense anger towards the person who hurt you.

In response to these magnified emotions, you might subconsciously discharge negative energy towards the people you love the most. Common relationship problems may include:

  • withdrawing or withholding how you feel from people who care about you.

  • lashing out over small triggers.

  • being unable to commit and demonstrate reliability.

  • spending time with people who don't treat you well.

  • isolating from social support altogether.

Difficulties in Work or School

Trauma can make even the most basic routines feel overwhelming. You might find yourself feeling more irritable or distracted. Subsequently, you may struggle to believe that things are pointless or that nothing you do really matters.

Of course, this toxic pattern can lead to serious problems at work or school. You might avoid putting forth any real effort. Or, if things start going well, you may sabotage your progress because you subconsciously don't believe it will last.

An Increased Desire to Escape Your Feelings

Who really wants to feel ashamed, sad, or lonely? Sitting with those emotions is difficult, and they can be persistent and brutal.

Additionally, if you've never learned how to be present with your feelings, the task may seem even more daunting. Instead, the urge to emotionally 'run away' may gnaw at you. Escape behaviors can include anything that helps you avoid the pain. Some of them (such as substance use) may be more dangerous than others, but they all can divert from the healing process.

Similarly, they often prolong the healing process. Rather than dealing with how you feel directly, you'll know you have to deal with the trauma emotions and the emotions associated with trying to escape.

Final Thoughts on How Trauma Affects Mental Health (and How Treatment Can Help!)

If you experienced a traumatic event, it's normal to oscillate between feeling angry, sad, confused, or even numb. Remember that there are no right or wrong ways to feel- your process is uniquely yours, and the healing takes time.

Trauma affects mental health, but it doesn't need to define your identity or dictate your thoughts. You can learn new ways to cope with the events from your past. Furthermore, you can lean on prosocial support and positive coping skills to help you process uncomfortable emotions.

At The Mental Health House, we help people overcome their pasts to lead more fulfilling, meaningful lives. We are here for you and your loved ones. Contact us today to learn more about our unique services.

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