image by Alan Cleaver (lic)PTSD, Trauma, Abuse and Other Stress-Related Disorders: Hope for Healing and Recovery
The media has focused much needed attention on the harmful effects of modern war on returning veterans. As such, nearly everyone has heard of PTSD, which stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. This extra attention has helped many people with PTSD get the help they need. However, PTSD is only one type of unhealed trauma. As the following case illustrates, other lesser-known manifestations of trauma often go unnoticed and/or are misdiagnosed. We hope this article provides hope to anyone who is affected by trauma in all its many forms.
To everyone who knew her, Katrina was the very picture of success. She owned and operated a very successful and profitable business. She drove a nice car, owned a home in a nice neighborhood, and had four children who adored her. She generously volunteered her time to charitable organizations and regularly attended her children's school activities. In fact, nearly everyone who met Katrina really admired her.
Despite these outward signs of success, Katrina privately struggled with her romantic relationships. Katrina was on her third marriage and felt that it too was nearing its end. She could list a host of other relationships in between her marriages that always seemed to end the same way: Inevitably, her partners' initial gestures of love and care were replaced by verbally and emotionally abusive behaviors. Katrina began to see herself as a workaholic. She never seemed to feel satisfied with her life unless she was working to her maximum potential, even if that meant she neglected to care for herself. She started to notice this neglect was affecting her health. Her doctor expressed concerns about her high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and her kids began expressing concerns that she was "stressing herself out" too much. To make matters worse, Katrina felt tired most of the time. Many nights she spent the whole night crying. Sometimes she would cry over her failing marriage, but other times she cried because she had a vague and unexplained feeling of being overwhelmed.
Katrina sensed something was wrong so she went to see several therapists at different times in her adult life. These various professionals described her as "emotionally exhausted," or as a "victim of abuse." However, these pronouncements did little to help her. It wasn't until Katrina began to acknowledge her life story as one long string of traumatic experiences that she finally turned the corner. Said Katrina, "Because I never went to war or never survived anything like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, I never thought I had the right to say that I had trauma." When Katrina learned that trauma was any unhealed human wound that causes people to get stuck, she began to fully acknowledge the damage and harm of her past experiences. Once she had done so, a pathway to healing began to emerge.
In fact, Katrina experienced a series of traumas during her life. She grew up in an alcoholic home with an emotionally abusive father and an emotionally distant mother. Her parents divorced while she was still in elementary school. She rarely saw her father, and her mother began a series of unstable romantic relationships. One of her mother's boyfriends sexually abused Katrina over a long period of time. When Katrina was in high school, one of her close friends committed suicide. Not long afterwards, her one stable family figure, her aunt, died tragically in a car accident.
Despite all this, Katrina managed to find some comfort by attending church. She formed a trusting relationship with one of the pastors whom she thought was accepting and non-judgmental. However, when she disclosed she and her boyfriend were sexually active, she was treated horribly and asked to leave the church. With little emotional support in her life, Katrina dove into her own series of unstable romantic relationships and found solace in hard work. Getting pregnant at age twenty derailed her initial college plans, yet she was eventually able to get back on track and finish her advanced degree. For Katrina, seeking out a clinician with a solid understanding of trauma and abuse, with its various manifestations, was a critical component of her healing process.
There were several steps in Katrina's healing process:
1. She began to understand her life experiences as a series of multiple traumas.
2. She began to value and appreciate her own resilience by identifying the emotional and supportive resources that had enabled her to survive thus far.
3. Together with her trauma-informed therapist, she developed a plan to heal and to change the direction her life. This was far more complex than just talking about her life as she had with other therapists. For Katrina, healing meant being able to stand her ground in her romantic relationships and to advocate for her emotional needs. She learned to work with greater ease and with less stress. She became more hopeful and optimistic about her future. As a result she took better care of herself, which in turn led to positive changes in her health.
Katrina's new, trauma-informed therapist helped her to examine the harmful consequences of her traumatic life experiences. Although the trauma was in the past, she learned how it was continuing to affect her thoughts, feelings, health, relationships, and her spirituality. She came to realize she reacted to life's stressors from a deeply-held belief that she was somehow inadequate and unworthy of love and kindness. This caused her to make a series of unhealthy decisions. Once she identified and changed this pattern, she began to make decisions as a woman who believed in her inherent worth and value. She began to treat herself with loving kindness, and she insisted that others respect her dignity and worth.
The therapeutic process ultimately led Katrina to see herself as a trauma survivor, instead of the helpless victim she once was. This shift in perspective also allowed her to obtain new self-knowledge about her capacity for creating a post-traumatic life of healing and growth. Katrina's metamorphous was from one who survived, to one who thrived.
There are many reasons you might be drawn to this topic of trauma, abuse, and stress. Perhaps you find yourself in a situation like Katrina's. You may be functioning quite well despite a pattern of ongoing relationship problems. Perhaps your solution is to avoid relationships entirely as they are taxing and unrewarding for you. Maybe you experience depression and anxiety and you've accepted this is just how your life is going to be. You might suspect these problems have something to do with your past. Or, maybe you know for certain that problems from your past are crippling your life but you don't know what to do about it. Other interested readers might be here because they love someone who just can't seem to get over things that happened in the past. You want to be loving and supportive but you wonder why your loved one doesn't seem to get any better.
Whatever your reasons for being here, we applaud your willingness to seek out more information about PTSD, trauma, abuse, and other stress-related disorders. Although the cliché, 'knowledge is power' is well-worn, it is a bit of folk wisdom that rings true. Knowledge can go a long way toward helping you to recognize the evidence of unhealed trauma, and point toward solutions for healing it. As Katrina's case demonstrates, knowledge empowered her. It enabled her to understand that her painful life experiences were various forms of trauma and that these unhealed traumas continued to negatively affect her life. This provided her with powerful validation to seek out a new path of healing.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: This article is not a replacement for professional evaluation and treatment. If the concepts in this article resonate with you, and you are not currently under professional care, we urge you to seek a qualified mental health professional. The treatment section will provide some guidance about selecting a professional provider that best meets your needs. Throughout this article we will also be introducing you to other people like Katrina. We hope these real-world examples enhance your learning experience. Please note- While all of these cases are real, the names and some details have been changed to protect anonymity.