Psychological Impacts of Trauma

Reduced Capacity to Trust Others

The very nature of interpersonal violence and persecution can cause extensive damage to human beings’ ability to trust. International survivors of human rights abuses such as torture and war trauma have encountered profound betrayal by fellow human beings, often leading to a deep mistrust in humanity. Survivors’ sense of physical and psychological safety has often been profoundly violated, and they may no longer feel able to trust in family members, friends, or even themselves. Consequently, a significant component of trauma recovery includes the gradual rebuilding of a sense of internal and external safety. Regaining the ability to trust is central to healing from the psychological and interpersonal impacts of human rights abuses.

Fight, Flight or Freeze

The impact of danger and extreme threat on the human brain is increasingly well understood. We know that threats to physical safety and psychological integrity impact human beings’ ability to regulate physiological arousal levels and emotional states. When people are faced with danger, they attempt to protect themselves from threat in three main ways: fighting, fleeing or freezing. These different defensive strategies are related to the following categories of trauma responses:

  • Heightened physiological and emotional arousal, in preparation for fighting or fleeing
  • A re-experiencing of traumatic events in the form of intrusive thoughts, feelings, memories and dreams
  • Emotional and cognitive numbing, often accompanied by social avoidance, in an attempt to “escape” from reminders of trauma
Emotional Dysregulation

The emotional hyperarousal, dysregulation and flooding caused by intrusive traumatic reminders is one of the most debilitating consequences of human rights abuses. Many survivors are unable to modulate their intense affective responses to everyday life, and can feel out of control and overwhelmed by anything which acts as a reminder of their past trauma. For example, a sound or smell might suddenly recall a frightening experience, bring back a traumatic memory with great force, and lead to a powerful shift in a survivor’s emotional and cognitive state. Or an intimidating interpersonal interaction such as with someone in authority, might trigger traumatic memories and cause a survivor to freeze, and become unable to speak or interact.

When asked by a new friend about his experiences in the refugee camp, one survivor was unable to say that he preferred not to discuss this. He suddenly became acutely suicidal, and had to flee from the interaction and isolate himself. He had not been aware of what had caused his state to shift so dramatically, and could not understand his own emotions. These traumatic triggers can cause significant difficulties in relationships and overall functioning for survivors.

A Fragmentation of the Self

Another significant consequence of human rights abuses for survivors is a sense of internal fragmentation. The overwhelming nature of the dangers faced leads to an inability to fully process and integrate traumatic events. Brain chemistry and functioning are altered in situations of extreme threat, and experiences are processed and stored differently in memory. This internal emotional and cognitive fragmentation can lead to dissociation, memory loss, and cognitive difficulties. For instance, a survivor who endured years of captivity and severe abuse experienced dissociative states which lasted several hours. During these moments she would become lost, and have no recollection of where she had been or what she had done. She was overwhelmed and frightened by these fragments of time and memory completely lost to her awareness.

Each individual survivor and distinct community has their unique way of responding to traumatic circumstances. However, our global clinical experience has shown that there are significant similarities across groups, and that basic human responses to trauma are universal. There are variations in how people and societies describe and express these responses, but at their core, they remain consistent across countries, languages and cultures.

An overview of Za'atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. Panorama taken on 21 November, 2012.

An overview of Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. Panorama taken on 21 November, 2012.