Trying to Understand PTSD and Other Trauma-induced Mental Health Issues
In the wake of two lengthy wars and a widespread economic crisis lingering from the Great Recession, the American People are struggling to understand growing social issues like trauma-induced mental illnesses. Ranging from mild to severe, trauma-induced mental illnesses, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Acute Stress Disorder, and Developmental Trauma Disorder, will often leave those suffering unable to properly function in normal, everyday circumstances. The human mind is capable of overcoming great adversity; however, everyone has their limits while stressful circumstances force people to adapt in ways that can make them vulnerable in other aspects of their lives. Leaving the specific diagnostic terminology to clinicians, trauma-induced mental illnesses can be better understood by taking a closer look at how extreme and prolonged stress affects individuals who find themselves in traumatizing circumstances.
An individual is traumatized when stressful events or environments overwhelm that person's ability to successfully respond to a given situation. When the trauma leaves the traumatized individual unable to properly deal with similar stressors in other crises and non-crises, that individual loses the ability to properly function in everyday circumstances. A veteran with PTSD, for example, may find the moderate stress of a trip to the grocery store, which might remind her of some traumatizing war experience, so intolerable that she collapses into the fatal position, sobbing, before she lashes out against onlookers. The traumatic events that caused the PTSD have created a heightened sensitivity to the stressors associated with a necessary visit to a public place, thus the soldier's diminished ability to ignore the stress of dealing crowded areas and her heightened sensitivity to potential threats leaves her dysfunctional in a wide variety of circumstances.
Furthermore, an individual with a trauma-induced mental illness tends to avoid uncomfortable situations, just as all people do. The different between a reasonably healthy person and a dysfunctional person is a heightened sensitivity to necessary discomforts. Facing a situation reminiscent of a traumatizing event or situation, a traumatized person will struggle to cope with normal stressors. Unable to deal with continuing and/or overwhelming stress, the traumatized individual will respond to normal, manageable situations as though they are crises. The ensuing reactions may be manifested internally, which might take the form of an unresponsive state, an inability to focus on tasks, constant daydreaming, or suicidal thoughts, while they may also be manifested externally, which might take the form of crying, screaming, verbal attacks, attempts at suicide, or violence.
Because trauma-induced mental illnesses lead sufferers to respond to stressful events in abnormal, often disruptive, ways, it is the tendency of others to essentially shun and socially attack, i.e. add stress and provoke a stronger reaction, those suffering from these conditions. For example, consider a severely abused and/or neglected child who has developed a reactionary personality and a hypersensitivity to controlling, i.e. manipulative and deceitful, behavior. Constantly exposed to unaddressable stressors, a.k.a. a state of duress, this individual has learned to aggressively react to any perceived provocation. Obviously, this can, and often does, lead to a great number of poor choices and issues when socializing, thus this individual also experiences added stress from negative responses to his dysfunctional behavior. Depending upon how excessively and vindictively his peers respond, this unhealthy social dynamic can itself be traumatizing. Consequently, an individual suffering from a trauma-induced mental illness may experience secondary traumas due to the symptoms of the original trauma.
Meanwhile, it is important to remember traumatic experiences can easily exasperate preexisting mental health issues. Consider a situation where our severely abused child, who has developed an extensive set of defense mechanisms to cope with his state of duress, is aggressively pursued by a deceitful girl. The boy struggles to cope with his inability to directly act on his emotions, though he does make his developing feelings known to her, and his inability to fulfill his before suppressed emotional needs. He is then traumatized when the girl later wrongfully, and ironically, accuses him of stalking her after he reacts to her teasing less-than-in-kind in an attempt to confront her with her wrongdoings. Although an inability to adequately focus due to his emotional instability eventually forces him to abandon the pursuit of his dream job, i.e. his reason for surviving, he is then again traumatized when his attempts to find a new purpose through alternative career paths are met with rejection at the entry level.
The abused child, who was socially isolated to a large extent and developed some hidden mental illness(es) like depression, learned to cope with what should have been devastating circumstances, yet the added emotional stress from his encounter with the girl, coupled with the intellectual stress involved in the pursuit of his dreams, overwhelmed his ability to cope. Suffering from some trauma-induced condition, he eventually finds he can no longer function in the environment that his career choice requires. In turn, his mental health issues make it more difficult for him to adapt and deal with the necessary, ongoing stress of pursuing a new career path while he can no longer tolerate women toying with him, even playfully. Henceforth, his initial mistreatment left him vulnerable to an emotional and psychological breakdown that, in turn, left him dysfunctional in a competitive environment. It is, therefore, important to recognize trauma-induced mental illnesses set in motion a series of events that make it less and less likely those suffering from such conditions can recover without sufficient outside help.
Trauma-induced mental illnesses can be disabling and extremely difficult o overcome without a strong support network, which the dysfunctional often come to lack, and proper intervening help, which targets the underlying issues that must be addressed. What individuals inflicted by these conditions need is an opportunity and environment that allows them to be desensitized to the everyday stressors that they no longer know how to deal with. In other words, they need to relearn how to cope with necessary stressors, so they no longer respond to everyday circumstances as though they are encountering unmanageable crises. Recovery hinges upon the ability of these individuals to encounter and successfully overcome the same stressors that traumatized them. If communities wish to help, if they can help, they need to create environments where individuals suffering from trauma-induced mental illnesses can feel secure enough to begin relearning how to interact with the world; otherwise, these dysfunctional individuals will likely struggle with their illnesses until they die.