The Relational Impact of Trauma

By Anju Bhargava, Ph.D. and Annaliese Schultz, B.A.

What is trauma?

Trauma can be a variety of life experiences, but it’s best defined as a situation that is threatening to a person and surpasses their available coping resources. Non-human inflicted traumas include events such as natural disasters and accidents. Human inflicted traumas include events such as abuse, war, rape, assault, sexual abuse, and neglect.

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Given the extent of violence, oppression, and other stressors in our culture, it’s highly likely that many people will experience some type of traumatic event in their lives. The quality of relationships, or available support, a person has before and after experiencing a trauma impacts their ability to cope. Even prenatal exposure to trauma can have an impact physiologically and psychologically.

Research into the neurobiology of early life stress and trauma shows us the effects of abuse on the brain and the body.

There are four primary ways that trauma impacts us including:

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1) Relational Difficulties,

2) Developing Poor Coping Strategies,

3) Developing Psychological Disorders

4) Negatively Impacting Brain Development.

In addition, too much stimulation related to abuse, trauma, and neglect may overwhelm a developing nervous system.

Survivors of trauma my experience intense longings for connection.

They long for connection but their trauma histories can contribute to them feeling terrified at the same time. This may make relationships very confusing. Traumas that lead to long-lasting relational difficulties are more likely to happen when the violence or trauma is committed in the context of a human relationship, and even more likely if committed by a parent, sibling, or close relative. Poor coping strategies include substance abuse, eating disorders, and/or self-harm which may further isolate the individual. Psychological disorders that may occur include major depression, substance use, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Even if we could eliminate violence and oppression, trauma and stress would still exist in the form of accidents, natural disasters, death, and loss. It’s important to be aware of the wide-reaching impact of trauma on our relationships, bodies, and brains. If you or someone you know is struggling to deal with the effects of trauma, it’s recommended that you seek professional help such as scheduling an appointment with an art therapist. Art therapy is a powerful treatment for survivors of trauma because art therapists create safe environments for individuals to bring underlying emotions to the surface where they can explore and cope with them in a healthy way.

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