Meadows Senior Fellow Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is world-renowned for his work pertaining to the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), childhood trauma, and abuse.
In a video interview on bigthink.com, Dr. van der Kolk explains how the emotional and relational difficulties faced by war veterans shaped the diagnosis of PTSD and how the effects of trauma are major contributing factors.
When bystanders pulled Stanford University swimmer and Olympic hopeful Brock Turner away from the woman he was sexually assaulting behind a fraternity house dumpster, he laughed.
When the judge in the resulting sexual assault trial handed down a sentence much more lenient than the recommended six years of jail time, citing the “severe impact” he feared a harsher sentence may have on the 20-year-old, many felt that he might as well have laughed.
Both reactions to Turner’s crime make light of the traumatic and often devastating impact that rape and sexual assault has on its victims. The Brock Turner case opened up many fraught and painful discussions about rape culture and the way that society tends to blame victims of sexual assault and normalize sexual violence.
Many of those same wounds are being reopened this week with the news that Turner will be released from jail after serving only 3 months of a 6 months sentence. The news is not surprising—most expected him to only serve part of his sentence on a presumption of good behavior—but, for many, it’s serving as an unwanted reminder of their own sexual traumas and the ways in which their pain was silenced, ridiculed, or ignored.
Researchers aren’t sure why, but rape seems to have a more severe impact on a person than other types of trauma. It’s normal to feel some symptoms of traumatic stress for a few weeks after any experience with violence. Those who develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), however, can continue to experience problems with sleeping, nightmares, panic, severe anxiety and depression that last for months or years. As time goes on, if the person does not receive treatment for the disorder, the symptoms can get worse and worse, and even become debilitating.
People can develop PTSD after any number of horrific events including combat, car accidents, and life-threatening injuries, but rape victims have been found to be more likely to struggle with long-term psychological and physiological issues. They also have a higher risk of developing PTSD and related disorders.
In addition to PTSD, women who were raped have also been found to be more likely to suffer from sexual dysfunction, pain during intercourse, menstrual problems, and inhibited arousal.
Though no one has yet been able to determine the reason why rape has such a heightened traumatic impact, some theorize that both brain chemistry and rape culture play a role.
Cortisol, a hormone that is released in times of stress, was reported in a 2011 study to be found at higher levels in rape victims than in those of people otherwise traumatized.
The exact reason is unknown, but some researchers believe that it could be that the physical closeness of rape prompts the body to respond differently to rape and sexual assault than it does to other types of trauma.
Another possibility is that rape victims’ levels of cortisol are elevated due to the level of shame they experience—shame has been found in some studies to be linked to higher levels of cortisol. If the shame theory holds true, it further illustrates the importance of changing the way we treat rape and sexual assault victims as a society.
Many women who are traumatized by rape experience a secondary traumatization through the harsh scrutiny, blaming, and shaming they receive from law enforcement, family, peers, and others are often reluctant to ask for any further help. Men who are raped or sexually assaulted may be even more unlikely to report the crime or ask for help from the resulting trauma, due to stigmas related to men, sex, and powerlessness.
More must be done to help lift the burden of shame from both male and female victims of sexual assault, and raise awareness about treatment options for PTSD and other mental health issues that often result from the emotional trauma of sexual assault.
If you’d like to talk to us about treatment options for sexual trauma and related disorders, please give us a call at 866-330-1925. Our specialists are glad to answer any questions you may have and understand the importance of keeping your call strictly confidential.
Trauma that arises from natural disasters—like the horrific flood that has devastated much of Louisiana this week—can have a heavy emotional toll on those who are directly affected, including survivors, rescue workers, volunteers, bystanders, and witnesses. Mild to moderate stress reactions are normal and expected for anyone involved. Although their reactions, emotions, and behaviors may seem extreme at the time, they generally don’t turn into chronic disorders.
For some, though, the trauma can be so overwhelming that it more or less “rewires” the person’s brain, putting them in a state of hypervigilance and/or helplessness for many months or years beyond the event leaving them with the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or severe anxiety and depression.
Peter Levine, a renowned trauma expert and Senior Fellow at The Meadows, defines trauma not by the event, but by the person’s reactions to it and their symptoms. Earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, shootings, and massive violent attacks are events that typically come to mind when people think of traumatic events. Many might also include being involved in a serious accident, being a witness to a serious accident, or being the victim of or witness to a serious crime as “trauma.”
Some people will be more severely affected by a traumatic event and struggle for varying periods of time based on the nature of the event and their own temperament. Some of the warning signs that someone is experiencing levels of stress beyond what is normal and expected after a traumatic event and may be struggling with PTSD include…
Any of these symptoms indicate that the person likely needs help from a mental health professional or treatment program.
It’s not possible to predict when or if someone who has experienced a traumatic event will develop PTSD. Some people will seem fine at first—maybe even strangely fine—only to be overcome with the disorder some time later. In general survivors of natural disasters should see a therapist or mental help professional if acute stress symptoms don’t subside after a month, or if they feel that their thoughts and emotions, and their lives, are spiraling out of control.
If a treatment program is needed, it might be helpful to look for one that offers not only talk therapy but also EMDR, Somatic Experiencing©, and the latest neurofeedback techniques for treating trauma. A comprehensive, brain-based approach can help PTSD sufferers recover more fully and return to “normal” more quickly.
By Dr. Jon Caldwell, D.O., Ph.D. Chief of Psychiatry at The Meadows
Note: This post was originally published on TheGriffon108.com. The Meadows is proud to be a TRICARE Preferred Provider of behavioral health and addiction inpatient services in the West Region. Call us today at 800-244-4949.
Trauma is part of the human experience. Being alive comes with the inevitable risks of stress, injury, sickness, loss, and death. There’s no escaping it. Critically though, these threats to health and life are perhaps most pronounced for individuals who serve in the military. Few other circumstances in modern times make these threats more real than military service. Military service members are required to complete their mission while facing significant risk and threat.
Fortunately, humans are equipped with a highly functional nervous system that, under typical conditions, can successfully deal with most stressors and threats. For example, relatively common experiences like nearly running over a piece of garbage on the freeway, an argument between two people in a retail store, or being disappointed by a loved one are stressful and somewhat threatening situations that are usually managed effectively by most people’s nervous systems.
In circumstances like these, most people feel a temporary surge of adrenaline and hyper awareness to the potential threat; their nervous system prepares them for “fight or flight” and mobilizes the necessary resources to effectively deal with the situation. In relatively short order, the fight or flight reactivity usually subsides naturally, and they are able to return to the flow of their lives: driving, shopping, and social engagement.
However, under extreme or chronic conditions of stress and threat, as is common in military service, the nervous system can become overwhelmed. In fact, the chemical and physical make-up of the brain-body stress response system can be altered by experiences of extreme or chronic stress (i.e., trauma). For many service members, this can result in decreased “resiliency”, or the capacity to effectively manage everyday life circumstances. This shift in resiliency can occur immediately after the experience of trauma, but very often it can occur down the road, sometimes years later.
For some service members, the trauma-related changes to the nervous system progresses to the point where he or she qualifies for the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The diagnosis of PTSD is made when a person was directly or indirectly exposed to an extremely stressful or threatening event or series of events that resulted in symptoms of intrusion (e.g., disturbing memories, nightmares, flashbacks), avoidance (e.g., avoidance of thoughts, people, places, and things associated with past trauma), negative alterations in thinking and mood (e.g., self-blame, guilt, shame, isolation, withdrawal, depression), and alterations in arousal and activity (e.g., insomnia, hypervigilance, irritability, anger, self-destructive behavior).
These trauma-related symptoms are very distressing. But, for a variety of reasons, many service members don’t seek help and, despite their best efforts, are unable to manage the symptoms on their own. Therefore, it is common for these individuals to cope with their symptoms by turning to addictive behaviors, like alcohol and drugs, pornography and sex, gambling, video games, and disordered eating. Of course, while these behaviors may temporarily modify unpleasant trauma-related symptoms, they frequently result in more distress and added functional limitations.
The everyday situations mentioned above will be used here to better understand the experience of PTSD. For many service members, a piece of garbage on the freeway would likely elicit thoughts, memories, or flashbacks about Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). This experience could easily result in driving-related stress and hypervigilance, intrusive memories or flashbacks, poor concentration while driving, fear and avoidance of driving, or anger and road-rage.
When encountering an argument between two people in a retail store, a service member who is affected by past trauma might experience a pronounced fight or flight response. If it is a fight response, he or she may experience intrusive memories or flashbacks of previous violent encounters and surges of adrenaline in preparation for defending oneself or attacking others. If the individual has a flight response, he or she may experience overwhelming urges to leave the store, avoid that store and similar retail stores, and retreat further from public places and crowds.
If a military service member who is affected by trauma is disappointed by a loved one, he or she may escalate quickly to irritability and anger, perhaps reacting by yelling, throwing things, or becoming violent. Alternatively, the anger might secretly fester into resentments that result in addictive acting out behaviors. On the other hand, being let down by a loved one might result in painful feelings of being misunderstood, guilt and shame, self-loathing, sadness, and depression.
As these vignettes illustrate, services members can have pronounced nervous system reactivity in response to everyday situations as a result of their history of traumatic experiences. This reactivity takes them out of the present moment flow of routine life and leaves them feeling uncomfortable in their own skin and disconnected from other people. In this state, they are more likely to resort to addictive and unhealthy behaviors. Sadly, many service members suffer in silence, and some don’t get help before it’s too late.
Fortunately, it’s never too late to get help, and there is hope! Appropriate treatment can help to identify past traumas, current symptoms, and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Additionally, treatment can help reduce nervous system reactivity and restore its natural capacity for self-regulation. Treatment can help affected service members to let go of shame and self-destructive behaviors. Restoration of resiliency means that service members will once again feel confident in their abilities to manage everyday life situations. Lastly, service members who receive appropriate treatment can reestablish safe connections to peers, loved ones, and the world around them – they are able once again to enter the flow of life and experience all that it has to offer!
In a recent video from PESI Inc., Dr. Bessel van der Kolk— a Senior Fellow at The Meadows— explains how yoga traditions can help prevent psychological trauma patients from getting stuck during the course of their treatment.
Traumatized people’s bodies get rewired in a way that makes them feel that they are constantly in danger. They get tightness in their chests, they feel restless, agitated, and unable to focus. This makes it necessary for them to explore how they can find stillness and become more present in the here and now.
Two major avenues for learning how to quiet your mind and body are movement and breath. Yoga and Tai Chi are both traditions that use movement and breath to help people improve their interoception, or sense of the body from within.
Learn more from Dr. van der Kolk about the role yoga and interoception can play in healing from trauma in this brief video:
If you’re a behavioral health professional, check out Dr. van der Kolk’s 6-week Intensive Trauma Treatment Course to take a deep dive into numerous effective trauma treatment modalities. Register today, because spaces are limited.