Old steel structures can become unsafe—especially if they’ve suffered damage from negative events such as earthquakes. We call this metallic stress, something like metallic trauma. Plants and trees can suffer damage, affecting their future growth. We have known dogs continuing to bear signs of being abused throughout their lives.
Undoubtedly, many of us as teachers, youth workers, and even parents have dealt with children and youth who have suffered trauma and carry a hidden wound or various traits of post-trauma. And we may have missed important opportunities to promote healing and growth.
According to MedicineNet.com, “Trauma is any (serious) injury, whether physical or emotionally inflicted. ‘Trauma’ has both a medical and a psychiatric definition. Medically, ‘trauma’ refers to a serious or critical bodily injury, wound or shock. This definition is often associated with trauma medicine practiced in emergency rooms. In psychiatry, on the other hand, ‘trauma’ has assumed a different meaning and refers to an experience that is emotionally painful, distressful, or shocking, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.” Such emotional or psychological trauma will be dealt with here.
Trauma may be suffered by individuals or groups. Terrorist activities of neighborhood violence may traumatize a victim of torture or shootings and it may leave a family, village or neighborhood, or even a country in partial paralysis or depression.
One remarkable feature of Trauma and its aftermath is that not all soldiers or women, for instance, who have passed through the same traumatic event, suffer in the same way. Some soldiers of WWII’s bloodiest battles, and some women who have been sexually assaulted, for instance, suffer little of the same post-traumatic effects as companions who have endured the same trauma. Some have even reported benefit they have received from terrible trauma (see our article: The Paradox of Post-Traumatic Growth.) But the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorders is so widespread as to be of critical public health concern.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is such a damaging effect from continuous or extreme trauma, leaving an individual or group stressed, angry or frightened. Many of the fleeing immigrants of 2014-1015 and beyond are suffering from both collective and individual post-traumatic stress. Urban areas of the U.S. and other countries have seen the effects of personal and neighborhood trauma. Those suffering local gang violence may have seen a friend or relative shot and pick up feelings of post-traumatic stress.
Citing DSM-5, Wikipedia describes PTSD as
… an anxiety disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events, such as major stress, sexual assault, warfare, or other threats to a persons life. Symptoms include disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and hyperarousal, continue more than a month after the occurrence of a traumatic event.
Most people who have experienced a traumatizing event will not develop PTSD. People who experience assault-based trauma are more likely to develop PTSD, as opposed to people who experience non-assault type trauma such as witnessing trauma, accidents and fire events. Children are less likely to experience PTSD after trauma than adults, especially if they are under the age of ten years of age. War veterans are commonly at risk for PTSD.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) says that “PTSD was first brought to public attention in relation to war veterans, but it can result from a variety of traumatic incidents, such as mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.”
As to the causes of PTSD, according to NIH, neuro-scientists are studying genes and chemicals that
…play a role in creating fear memories, strathmin, a protein needed to form fear memories…and GRP (gastrin-releasing peptide), a signaling chemical…which seems to help control the fear response….Lack of GRP may lead to the creating of greater and more lasting memories of fear….A version of the 5-HTTLPR gene, which controls levels of serotonin…appears to fuel the fear response. Like other mental disorders, it is likely that many genes with small effects are at work in PTSD. (National Institute of Health, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” accessed 21Sep15)
Young people may struggle to hide upsetting flashbacks, frightening memories or fears and the need to be vigilant and in constant control. Or, they may be living with a vague, numb disconnectedness, perhaps not considering it abnormal. Inability to trust may be another symptom in those who have suffered very painful or persistent emotional injuries.
It is not clear why some are more resilient to traumatic events than others. While some may be devastated by a break-up, death or divorce, others seem to rebound more readily. People who chronically suffer from anxiety and stress are certainly more vulnerable–as are those who have been traumatized previously.
The Pelzer brothers provide a famous case of horrendous and traumatic abuse. David, the older, according to accounts in his books (A Boy Called It, The Lost Boy, and A Man Named Dave) was terribly abused by his mother, described as an emotionally disturbed, sadistic alcoholic. He describes her raging at and berating him, beating him, denying him food, making him drink ammonia, and putting him out in the garage like a dog. David’s accounts have been questioned by his youngest of four brothers and a grandmother but are mainly verified by the teacher who finally got him rescued and placed into foster care at the age of 12. The mother’s rage was then turned on Richard, who substantiates David’s terrible abuse, and shares his own struggles in A Brother’s Journey.
The 2015 visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. roused general enthusiasm—even from non-Catholics and non-believers. His positive emphasis on the plight of the poor and suffering has broad universal praise. His reforms of the Vatican Curia and Bank are extraordinary. According to insiders, his important work to confess and restrain childhood sexual abuse, though laudable, has perhaps understandably not been his top priority. It is this fact that brought anger from survivors. And it helps us understand the long-lasting effects of childhood sexual abuse. New England director of the Survivors Network, David O’Regan, 65, said, “As a survivor, I’m nervous about him coming here. I’m worried about my own self-care….I’m just holding on tight. The media is going to bombard us. We can’t avoid it.” Psychologist Ann Hagan Webb, 63, suffered abuse by a priest from kindergarten to seventh grade. These survivors want more than a general apology and some compensation; they want to see the firing of complicit bishops and more stringent safe guards. It is clear that their suffering still runs deep. (Mark Asenault, 2015 Sept 20, “Papal trip riles abuse victims: Say Francis must do more on issue,” The Boston Globe, B1,3).
Beyond individual trauma, it is very important to consider collective trauma—a negative psychological effect brought upon any-sized group, families, communities, ethnic groups or a society, by slavery, wars, genocide, neighborhood shootings, assassinations of beloved leaders or devastating natural disasters. Post-traumatic effects can create cultural shifts in a group—especially if the trauma is prolonged and critical.
Responding or treating collective trauma is a challenging matter. Societies such as South Africa and Rwanda, and the African-American population of the United States, have recognized the collective post-traumatic stress conditions, studied and agreed upon collective responses, set up processes for the telling of stories, asked confession from perpetrators, and allowed for forgiveness in time, with some sort of restitution. These seem to be steps in healing collective post-traumatic stress: telling of stories, acknowledgement of wounds, offering some kind of restitution, and allowing time for possible forgiveness.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What brought you to this article? Have you or someone you know suffered from post-traumatic stress?
Did you find what you were looking for? What questions or comments do you have?
Do you feel you know the definition of emotional trauma and some of its main symptoms?
Do you know the laws regarding mandated reporting in your state or country, regarding any minor you know or find who has been physically, emotionally or sexually abused?
Where will you go from here to learn more? Do you sometimes use our Resource List for each topic?
If one out of 5 or 6 young people have been sexually abused, and we add those who have been physically or emotionally abused or grossly neglected, a huge minority of our young people are suffering post-traumatic stress disorders of some kind.
The resiliency of youth is amazing. But even those who are pretty strong survivors have issues that need to be worked out.
Young people who are ready to deal with this in their lives, and who get the right kind of help, can be most helpful to other peers.
You’ll find a number of self-help books in the Resource List for this topic, including one especially for teenagers by the author described above.
As parents, teachers, social workers, organizational and church leaders, we must all work to make our families, communities, schools and churches, safe places, free from bullies and predators.