The Impact of Trauma on Mental Health & Recovery

Experiencing trauma at least once during a person’s lifetime is relatively common. In fact, an article in the Annals of General Psychiatry indicates that 50% of women and 60% of men experienced a traumatic event in their lifetimes, with most being exposed to two or more such events. (1) 

This traumatic exposure, then, is also associated with mental health issues. For example, among patients with severe mental illness (SMI), studies show that as many as 81% reported sexual and childhood abuse. Similarly, studies reveal that among SMI patients, 43% to 81% reported exposure to physical and sexual violence, and 43% indicated they’d experienced car and/or work accidents.(1)

Despite these staggering statistics, hope and improved mental health outcomes are possible. At Immersion Recovery Center in Delray Beach, FL, our licensed therapeutic professionals understand the connection between trauma and mental health. They are trained to help clients work through these traumatic events and build the skills and knowledge necessary to improve their well-being. Contact Immersion Recovery Center today to learn more about trauma-informed care and our comprehensive dual-diagnosis treatment options. Keep reading to explore not only the impact of trauma on mental health but also proven treatment methodologies.

Understanding Trauma

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as “experiences that cause intense physical and psychological stress reactions.”(2) While many people experience a single traumatic event, others have been exposed to multiple or chronic episodes of trauma.

The American Psychological Association goes on to explain that trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event, such as war, the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, crime, an accident, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, experiencing or witnessing violence, and more.(3) 

Initial responses can include shock and denial immediately following the event. However, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives, which can lead to long-term responses and mental health concerns. In these cases, mental health professionals and treatment centers can help them find constructive ways to manage their emotions.

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Psychological & Emotional Effects of Trauma

While the effects of trauma can appear immediately, sometimes the impacts don’t reveal themselves until later in life. When a traumatic event occurs, the body and brain will do what they can to protect themselves. These protective skills are beneficial in the short term but may result in unhealthy mental and physical conditions later in life. These short-term protective behaviors include:

  • Heightened sense of awareness
  • Fight-or-flight response
  • Feeling numb or detached

Long-term responses to trauma can include:(3) 

  • Strained relationships
  • Flashbacks
  • Unpredictable emotions
  • Nausea
  • Headaches

Mental health disorders often find their roots in past trauma. A study published in a Scandinavian peer-reviewed medical journal estimates that exposure to childhood trauma results in adults being three times more likely to develop a mental health condition.(4) 

During a traumatic experience, a person’s brain and body unconsciously use a set of defense mechanisms that help establish safety in the short term but can result in a mental health disorder if unaddressed. How these defense mechanisms develop, the exposure to trauma, and the ability to process trauma all play significant roles in determining which type of mental health condition can evolve.

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder directly linked to past trauma exposure. Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Re-experiencing symptoms — A person will have recurring and distressful memories or dreams of a traumatic event.
  • Avoidance symptoms — Some will avoid people, places, or situations that elicit feelings related to a traumatic event.
  • Arousal symptoms — An individual will be easily startled or triggered by seemingly insignificant locations, events, or situations.

Depression & Anxiety

Depression is defined by its extended periods of exceptionally low mood and energy. Though it can seem to have no direct cause, past trauma may be the culprit. After experiencing a traumatic event, some find they continue to re-experience the occurrence mentally. If these feelings persist, individuals can develop feelings of hopelessness around their situation, resulting in depression.

Depression and anxiety often go hand-in-hand because they are both related to feelings of hopelessness. Anxiety is categorized by its long-term experience of stress-related symptoms even without a stimulating event. This uncomfortable condition can be the primary emotion someone experiences as the result of underlying PTSD.

Substance Use Disorders & Addiction

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are also commonly linked to past trauma exposure. When employed as a coping mechanism, use of mood-altering substances help individuals numb, dissociate, or temporarily forget past trauma. If someone is unable to find healthier means of coping, continued misuse can lead to an SUD.

Trauma-Informed Care & Treatment Approaches

Trauma-informed care is an approach to mental health treatment that understands the link between trauma and mental illness. It is used nationwide to help individuals unpack and process trauma and prevent its present-day impact on mental well-being.

Evidence-Based Therapies for Trauma Recovery

Evidence-based therapies are those with a proven track record of long-term success. According to a review of evidence-based psychotherapy interventions, the American Psychological Association recommends the following evidence-based treatment modalities to address trauma.(5) 

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — This treatment modality addresses unwanted emotions and behaviors by understanding their relationship to thoughts and beliefs.
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) — CPT is a specific form of CBT intended to treat those with PTSD. Its goal is to help clients identify seemingly automatic responses and develop an understanding of their cause.
  • Prolonged Exposure (PE) — PE is another type of CBT intended to gradually reintroduce patients to memories or triggering events surrounding past trauma.
  • Cognitive Therapy (CT) — CT is a treatment modality that predates CBT. It also addresses the link between a patient’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Addressing Trauma in Mental Health Treatment & Rehab Programs

A fundamental aspect of mental health treatment is addressing past trauma. Many treatment facilities structure their programs around creating safe environments for clients to begin this healing journey. Trained clinicians guide patients through processing past trauma to understand how it relates to current unhealthy thought and behavior patterns. Once these patterns are addressed, clients can begin developing healthier coping methods.

Healing from Trauma

After past trauma has been exposed, processed, and understood, healing can occur. Patients involved in mental health treatment can build tools to manage mental health symptoms, minimizing their impact on daily life. 

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How to Get Help

Exposure to trauma is an unfortunate reality for many. At Immersion Recovery Center, we understand the complexities associated with addressing trauma and its impact on mental health and substance use disorders. If you or someone you love needs more information on trauma-informed care, reach out and take your first step toward recovery today.

  1. Floen SK, Elklit A. Psychiatric diagnoses, trauma, and suicidiality. Ann Gen Psychiatry.. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC185869.
  2. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207192.
  3. American Psychological Association. Trauma. Available from: https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma.
  4. McKay MT, Cannon M, Chambers D, Conroy RM, Coughlan H, Dodd P, Healy C, O’Donnell L, Clarke MC. Childhood trauma and adult mental disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal cohort studies. Available from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33315268.
  5. Watkins LE, Sprang KR, Rothbaum BO. Treating PTSD: A Review of Evidence-Based Psychotherapy Interventions. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6224348.

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Susan-Shirley

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Serving as the Inpatient Clinical Director at Immersion Recovery Center, Susan will work directly with staff members, clients, and family members to ensure the clinical program remains as effective and individualized as possible. Susan is no stranger to the fields of behavioral health and addiction. She has over 25 years of experience, working in an inpatient setting, an outpatient setting, acute stabilization and nearly all other settings in the realm of addiction recovery.