© 2017-2020 by Natalie D'Annibale, PsyD, LMFT

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Adult Survivors of Child Abuse

"Some survivors don't know they have a highly recognizable and treatable anxiety disorder called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which has been associated with survivors of the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, mass murders, natural disasters, rape, kidnapping, accidents, torture, and other extraordinary events.

People with PTSD often re-experience the trauma in their minds. When the memory brings on a physiological response or feeling this is called an abreaction. (The release of emotional tension through the recalling of a repressed traumatic event.) Often the situation that brings on the abreaction is reminiscent of the original trauma.

An abreaction could be triggered by something someone says, circumstances such as the press of a crowd, being left totally alone, a darkened room...or even a particular time of the year, smells, touch, tastes...or other things associated with the trauma. Suddenly, the survivor is transported as if in a time machine to the event of the original trauma and reacts with the emotional intensity that would have been appropriate then, though not now. During an abreaction it is difficult to distinguish "what was" from "what is".

Herein lies the Achilles Heels for survivors. They function well in many aspects of life until they encounter the events or circumstances that are likely to trigger abreactions: emotional vulnerability, physical illness or evasive medical procedures, struggles with authority figures, cultural oppression or abandonment, to name a few.

A person with PTSD lives with a persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma or numbing of general responsiveness. Survivors with PTSD may avoid any intimate connection, often resulting in feelings of detachment or estrangement from others. Survivors often have highly developed social skills and may seem to be extremely extroverted, but their dealings with others may preclude vulnerability. They can talk about movies or work or the weather, but they have difficulty expressing their feelings. Or, they may have constricted feelings. They may be unable to identify and express a wide range of emotions, particularly the anger, fear and sadness so closely associated with the original traumatic events.

Certain circumstances can make the disorder longer lasting and more severe. If a trauma is repeated, for instance, as in chronic physical or sexual abuse, then the disorder might persist more than it would after only one incident. Repetition does not make one immune to the consequences of trauma. Rather, it has a cumulative effect, as unresolved trauma is layered upon unresolved trauma."

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