Trauma and Its Effects on Important Relationships

Dawn Bevier

Understanding the physiology of trauma may help you understand your loved one and ensure the survival of the relationship itself

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The world has always dished out its fair share of cruelty, pain, and horror, but with the growing power of the internet and its social media sites, people are becoming increasingly aware of the traumas through which millions of people undergo or have undergone in the past.

Sadly, there are simply too many to name. Child abuse. Rape. Molestation. Emotional abuse. Bullying. Not to mention those who have endured the horrible traumas of war, either as soldiers or as victims of the conflict itself.

And while these traumas mentioned above seem to be the most discussed, those who have managed to be blessed enough to be unscathed by these great human tragedies still have their own traumas with which to deal. The loss of a job. An act of infidelity. A near-fatal car accident or debilitating or life-threatening physical illness.

For example, a few months ago while my mom and step-father were vacationing at the beach, my stepfather died. Literally. Luckily my mother is a nurse who was clear-headed enough at the time to call 911, put her shoe between the hotel door so that the emergency technicians could enter easily, and perform CPR for the ten minutes until they arrived. The paramedics had to jump-start his heart once more before he arrived at the hospital. For two weeks, she lived at the hospital, barely managing to survive herself, “living” on prayers and hope while having flashbacks of the love of her life’s empty eyes as she desperately sought to save his life.

When he finally awakened and his immediate danger was over, there was rehabilitation therapy at a hospital close to home. Finally, he went home and tests showed that, with cardiac rehabilitation and a few changes to his lifestyle, he could return to most of his normal activities.

But because of that month of trauma, things changed. For both my mother and my stepfather. And their relationship as a whole.

His personality became more hostile, his mood more sullen. And my mother has slept (or rather not slept)in fear each night afterward. And these changes continue to persist, even though it has been five months since the event itself.

Why the changes?

Because trauma doesn’t die. It seems almost immortal in its power to totally change each individual it touches in the most profound of ways.

And one of the reasons why is its impact on the brain, as trauma significantly alters an individual’s responses to the people, stimuli, and situations they encounter in everyday life.

Psychology Today outlines the three major areas of the brain impacted by trauma as the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex.

The amygdala

The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for perceiving possible threats to one’s survival. After a trauma, Psych Central reports that “the amygdala can “get caught up in a highly alert and activated loop during which it looks for and perceives threat everywhere.”

And it is obvious that this effect would have extreme effects on a person’s day to day functioning and social interaction.

This could explain why victims of sexual abuse see each man as a threat, why simple noises and clatter at home can send a soldier into a state of panic and paralysis, and why those who are bullied shy away from possible friendships or intimate relationships.

Take again, for instance, my mother and stepfather. Each thing my stepfather does, my mother worries. Is the activity too straining on his heart? What if he has another heart attack and she is not awake or present to “save” him once again?

And my stepfather, a strong and virile man, tries to act “normal” but inside is literally walking on eggshells as he realizes the fragility of life and comes to terms with his own mortality.

Furthermore, Brainblogger reports that studies have shown people who have PTSD or suffer from trauma have such a “hyperactive” amygdala that they “exhibit fear and stress responses even when they are confronted with stimuli not associated with their specific trauma.”

Fear such as this tyrannizes a person inexhaustibly, and as a result, all other emotions are held captive. And this fact can have numerous impacts on an individual’s life and those with whom he or she is closest.

This constant state of fear is due to another altered area of the brain for trauma survivors: the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex

This area of the brain, when functioning normally, regulates emotional responses set in motion by the amygdala. Very Well Mind states it best when they state that while the amygdala is “overstimulated” due to trauma, the [prefrontal cortex] becomes hypoactive or [atrophies].”

What is the result when these two parts of the brain that are supposed to work in harmony are disrupted?

Emotions are unchecked and impulse control is lowered, resulting in trauma victims being a “prisoner” of their own emotions and an inability to always properly manage their behavior in everyday life.

For example, your traumatized loved one may lash out for no apparent reason, suffer an intense depression and loss of enthusiasm for life (even though the traumatizing event is long past), or exhibit dangerous or reckless behaviors such as substance abuse or a disregard for his or her own safety or the safety of others.

In an article entitled “Three Ways Trauma Affects Your Brain,” it outlines that not only can the prefrontal cortex of trauma victims not “properly stop inappropriate reactions or refocus [one’s] attention” but “blood flow to [one’s] right prefrontal lobe can increase, so [one experiences] more sorrow, sadness, and anger.”

So in addition to the fact that the volcano of negative emotions experienced by trauma survivors due to the actual traumatic incident cannot be rationally “put into perspective,” it is also likely any negative emotional experiences not related to the trauma itself are heightened as well. This can lead to things such as feelings of hopelessness, hostility, and lack of ability to connect in positive ways to loved ones, co-workers, or even strangers.

The anterior cingulate cortex

The anterior cingulate cortex is described by a Psychology Today article as “a key hub in networks for emotion and thought, learning, and conflict resolution.” The negative impact of trauma also impacts this region of the brain, making it difficult to make good decisions about how to handle one’s emotions and rationally dissect and address one’s own fear, anger, and thought processes.

Science Direct states that this part of the brain is “critical for both stress and inhibitory control processes,” and it is easily seen that the effects of this changed brain are almost akin to one experiencing a sort of emotional and behavioral anarchy, where each feeling or thought is allowed to take control with no “brakes” to stop impulsive and often negative actions.

When these negative effects are added to the impacts of a trauma changed prefrontal cortex and amygdala, it creates a dangerous triad that threatens to sever the individual’s ability to function successfully in the outside world and to maintain intimacy in both friendships and love relationships.

The bottom line

If you are involved in a friendship or love relationship with a survivor of child abuse, sexual abuse or any of the myriad traumas to which some humans are victim, understanding their behavior and altered cognitive and emotional processes may be essential to sustaining your relationship.

Give him or her the love, understanding, compassion and, if necessary, the therapy and counseling that they need to find peace and security again.

Your trauma victim’s world has been shattered by the cruel hands of fate but with the right help and care, you can help them glue the jagged pieces of their heart back into place and make the future not a thing to fear, but a thing to anticipate with pleasure and hope.

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Sanford, NC
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