Trauma and Domestic Abuse
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” —Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Trauma can be defined as an emotional response to a very stressful, frightening or distressing event. It happens when we feel overwhelmed. Trauma can cause emotional and psychological harm that can be long-lasting. It can cause denial and shock in the short-term. The longer-term impact might cause physical symptoms such as headaches, exhaustion and digestive problems, and emotional symptoms such as flashbacks, confusion, anxiety and nightmares.
Survivors of domestic abuse will regularly suffer trauma. Domestic abuse is stressful, frightening and distressing whether it takes the form of physical abuse or psychological and emotional abuse. The symptoms of this trauma can sometimes be very damaging to emotional wellbeing. It can negatively affect mood, and at worst, it can have a devastating impact on the survivor’s ability to lead a happy and fulfilling life.
We all have different responses to situations that may trigger trauma. We may show more resilience to some disturbing situations and less to others. Our trauma responses are also unique, and the same trigger will cause different trauma responses in different people. Responses to trauma may seem irrational and confusing, however they are generally normal reactions to overwhelming fear or distress. Our responses are generally based on our efforts to protect ourselves following a terrible incident or series of incidents. If trauma makes us believe the world is an unsafe place, we may stay at home, perhaps develop agoraphobia in an effort to protect ourselves from exposure to further harm. If abused in childhood, eating disorders may develop – controlling eating can be a way of exerting control over our bodies when we felt that all control had been taken away from us. If we’ve suffered domestic abuse, anxiety is a common response – anxiety causes us to be hyper vigilant, in a constant state of fight or flight, and this helps us respond fast when our safety is threatened. If trauma has caused intense emotional distress, then masking this distress by abusing alcohol might be our coping strategy. As with the other coping strategies, we are just trying to protect ourselves both physically and emotionally. However these coping strategies or trauma responses are not generally helpful long-term.
When we’re experiencing symptoms of trauma, it can be reassuring to know that we’re not mentally ill, we’re not weak and nor are we going mad. We are simply behaving in what we perceive is a self-protective way following an overwhelming situation. When subjected to domestic abuse, it’s common to self-blame. When our trauma causes us depression and anxiety, it’s easy to accept blame for being weak, lacking resilience and allowing ourselves to ‘fall apart’. It isn’t helpful to think like this. It helps to know our responses are normal and that we are not responsible for our trauma. It can also be helpful to know we may have control over our recovery from trauma.
Steps to encourage recovery from the trauma of domestic abuse:
- Learn about the dynamics of domestic abuse. Read about the patterns of abuse and the manipulation involved. Realise that what happened wasn’t your fault. Become curious about the behaviour patterns of your abuser.
- Identify the effects of this trauma on you. How has it changed you? What were your survival strategies? Understand that your reaction to trauma is normal. Identify the specific coping strategies you need to overcome to recover from your trauma. List the behaviours you want to get rid of or change. Make an intention to heal and to explore more positive ways of coping.
- Reassess your values and what’s important to you. When living with domestic abuse, we can become so focused on attending to our abusers needs that we forget what was important to us. It’s helpful to find our life’s meaning and purpose. This will give us the energy and drive to recover. It will also help us to seek opportunities to grow. Accept that you have changed as a result of your trauma. Your world has been threatened, you’ll have had to re-evaluate. Not all change triggered by trauma is negative.
- Being self-compassionate and prioritising self-care are important in trauma recovery. Trauma is experienced in our bodies as well as our minds, so exercise and movement will help us ‘burn’ off the physical sensations of trauma. Exercising is also an act of self-care. We can help our minds too with practices such as mindful breathing and meditation.
- Creativity is a tool used for recovery and growth. It can also help us develop new skills. Writing and journaling about our abuse will give us a more objective perspective on what happened to us and can help distance ourselves from the abuse and trauma. Art, cooking, and music are other ways we may explore creativity to heal our trauma. We can use creativity in any form to help us visualise a future free from abuse and trauma, and to replace the abuse with a happy and positive image of our future.
- Acknowledging we have choice is powerful. With choice comes control. Control allows us to make decisions to positively shape our future. Domestic abuse takes our choice and control away from us. Once we know we have regained the ability to make decisions and choices, we can make choices that support our recovery from trauma. Suffering is not inevitable; we can control recovery through the choices we make.
- It’s not always easy to recover from trauma. Very often professional help is needed to guide and steer recovery. At every stage, be open to accessing professional support, particularly if you don’t feel you’re making adequate progress on your own, or if your coping mechanisms to deal with your trauma are dangerous to yourself and others. If suffering serious trauma, expert support from a trained professional is needed to safely progress towards recovery.
“You are not your circumstances. You are your possibilities.” Ophra Winfrey
But is trauma always bad? Seemingly not. Some people appear to thrive following trauma. Trauma can act as a catalyst that can help us turn our crisis into a positive transformation. It seems that trauma can encourage a re-think, a reinvention, an appreciation, a different perspective. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun first used the term ‘posttraumatic growth’. They defined it as the positive psychological change that is experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. We sometimes hear phrases such as – “Despite everything she’s been through, she still managed to do amazing things with her life”. Perhaps we’ve got it wrong and that it’s because of everything she went through rather than despite that she went on to do amazing things.
It would seem trauma can encourage the following areas of personal growth:
- A new appreciation of life and greater optimism
- A clear sense of life’s purpose
- Improved and strengthened personal relationships
- Increased feelings of compassion and altruism
- Acknowledgement of personal strengths and greater use of them
- Spiritual growth
It’s important to acknowledge that not everyone will experience posttraumatic growth. It can also seem insensitive and may cause offence to suggest any good might come from terrible traumatic experiences. There is a risk of minimising a person’s pain and suffering. Many domestic abuse survivors will suffer trauma that is difficult to recover from and will never lead to growth. That said, it’s as well for survivors to be familiar with the phenomena of posttraumatic growth so that they might open their minds to the possibility of positives arising from their trauma. If we are more open to considering a certain outcome, we are more likely to achieve it, we need to know that it’s possible. Trauma is generally viewed as a wholly negative experience, but we are increasingly understanding that this is not always the case.
To turn adversity into positive change, it seems necessary to fully consider and explore our thoughts, feelings and emotions around the traumatic event in a flexible way. We need to face what has happened and be curious about it. Talking about our traumatic event, reading about similar events and journaling our thoughts are all activities more likely to lead to posttraumatic growth. To do this we may need to face uncomfortable, disturbing and difficult emotions such as anger, grief and anxiety. On the other hand, if we try to protect ourselves from these painful emotions by avoiding feared thoughts, feelings and sensations, this seemingly can make things worse for us. By shutting down and being unable to explore our trauma, we may miss out on chances to generate more positive ways of thinking and being. Actively avoiding painful emotions is referred to as experiential avoidance.
Recovering from the trauma of domestic abuse is never linear. There will always be ups and downs. Survivors will be hopeful of progress, only to feel plunged into despair when a situation re-triggers their trauma. At every stage of feeling re-traumatised, we are actively processing our trauma and working towards recovery. Being re-triggered should not be seen as a backwards step. To understand this can help. To know that there will be difficult days when things will seem bleak should help prepare us for when these days come along. We need also to remind ourselves that domestic abuse must be understood and processed to fully recover from. Recovery is an active process that we need to engage in, even when this is very painful and difficult. To recover requires our active involvement. And with active involvement, we may have the chance to recover well, and to experience growth that may not have been possible without our trauma.
“I know with all the trauma I’ve been through in my life, from childhood, that I live a fuller life than anyone else I know. I’ve always said nothing is impossible and you should live life everyday as if it’s your last. Trauma can really lead to personal growth.” – Survivor