Trauma and the Lasting Psychological Impact of the Current U.S. Border Policy

President Trump and his administration’s “zero tolerance policy” of migrants coming to the U.S. borders has separated thousands of children from their families. There are thousands of documents of abuse and neglect, reports of denying children the right to hug their siblings, and reports of children held naked, handcuffed and beaten. The current suffering has led parents to commit suicide. The trauma will last for generations.

What is Psychological Trauma?

Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the mindbody that happens as a result of either a singular distressing event – or a multitude of stressful events over time – that exceeds our ability to cope. This can include (but isn’t limited to): forced separation from one’s parents, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, isolation, accidents, natural disasters, oppression, bullying, abandonment, or neglect. In fact, you can experience psychological trauma just by witnessing or learning about an event. In the case of secondary trauma, exposure to someone who has been traumatized becomes traumatic.

The Scars of Trauma

The basics of our stress response system is our fight-or-flight reaction. The mindbody can take this to extremes during traumatic events. When flight to safety isn’t possible, flight from the present can be the next step. In such cases the mind may detach from the body, turn inward, and withdraw from its connection to the present moment. If the fight instinct is activated it can project immense energy outward, expressed in tension, explosive emotions (like anger), thoughts, and behaviors in order to gain control.

When psychological trauma occurs the mind undergoes some fundamental changes in its assumptions of reality. The mind may learn lessons like: the world is unsafe, other people are threats, or that the self does not have the tools to cope with reality. The mind may rationalize that such traumatic events occur because the Self is evil, unloveable, incomplete, or deserving of trauma. These narratives shift people’s worldview and connection with the Self and as a result they become very sensitive to any sign of potential threats including: feeling trapped, close connections to others, isolation, or any physical, mental, or emotional reminders of the trauma.

As a whole psychological trauma disturbs thinking patterns, arousal, concentration, memory, sleep, appetite, attachment, and energy. Psychological trauma also makes the autonomic nervous system more sensitive to stressors, which makes it more difficult for people to regulate and self-soothe. Trauma can disrupt every phase of life. Below is a general list of acute stress symptoms, note that some people may only present with a few symptoms while others with many.

• Recurrent memories, thoughts, dreams, or nightmares that are about, or related in content to, the traumatic event(s)

• Flashbacks, feeling disconnected from body (some people describe it as though they are watching their life as it were a movie)

• The feeling that the world is fake/an illusion, or lack of awareness of surroundings.

• Attempts to avoid distressing thoughts, memories, emotions, or reminders about the event.

• Negative alterations of thoughts and mood. Inability to experience positive emotions

• Persistent negative beliefs or expectations about oneself or the world.

• Persistent negative emotional states: fear, horror, anger, guilt, sadness, shame, irritability.

• Loss of interest or reduced participation in normal activities

• Feeling detached or estranged from others.

• Amnesia about the events

• Explosive anger, irritability, or sadness/crying outbursts with little or no provocation.

• Reckless or self-destructive behaviors. Substance use to self-medicate.

• Feeling keyed up, tense, the need to know everything going on, constant worry

• Exaggerated startle responses

• Problems with concentration, or memory

• Impairment in social, work, school, family or other realms of functioning.

Everyone Experiences Traumatic Events, Why Doesn’t Everyone Have the Symptoms?

Not everyone who experiences traumatic events will develop psychological trauma. Genetics, environment, experience, coping mechanisms, vulnerability factors, and resources all play a role as far as how susceptible to trauma a person is.

Risk Factors Include

• Social Isolation of Families

• Not getting developmental needs met

• Poverty, economic disadvantage

• Family disorganization, dissolution, or violence

• Emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive caretakers

• Parental stress, Family History of Abuse

• Community Violence

• Parents/Grandparents were Traumatized

• Previous Exposure to Traumatic Events

Protective Factors Include

• A supportive and nurturing home environment

• Dependable and stable family relationships

• Receiving healthy affection

• Higher Socioeconomic Status

• Economic Stability

• Adequate housing

• Caring adults inside and outside family who provide nurture and act as role models

• Access to health care and community support

As for the thousands of migrants currently being held in detention, they come from areas where they are at an economic disadvantage, victims of violence, and are having a lack of family continuity. This means that the migrants who come to the U.S. borders are at elevated risk of experiencing trauma, and that the current policies remove protective factors and increase the risk of psychological trauma.

Impact of Trauma on Attachment and Relationships

People who have unhealed psychological trauma tend to have problems with interpersonal relationships. One challenge is that trauma interferes with people from communicating emotions in a socially acceptable manner. Trauma itself can prevent people from experiencing humor or joy. Emotions like sadness, anger, guilt, or anxiety are often interpreted by the mindbody to be a threat (as they are associated bad experiences) and thus can set off even more explosive reactions or a dissociative (withdrawing) responses. This makes it very difficult for people with psychological trauma to interact with others.

People who have unhealed psychological trauma tend to have problems with attachment. Some people who have experienced trauma try to keep people at a distance, for fear of being too vulnerable. Romantic relationships and friendships involve a certain level of intimacy. If someone developed the narrative that other people are dangerous, becoming close to someone is a threatening proposition. Alternatively, if someone incorporated the idea that they are unloveable, becoming closer to people means that those people might find out how unloveable they are, which represents the threat of abandonment. Withdrawal, flight, irritability, betrayal, and anger are often great tools for keeping people at a distance,

Other trauma reactions are to pull people in close. People who experience neglect, isolation, or abandonment as a trauma might cling closely to those who they connect with, for fear of abandonment again. Anxiety, worry, excessive kindness and even self-harm are frequently tools used to try deepen connections. Unfortunately, such reactions usually push people away. Other people experience a confusing mix of both reactions where they both crave and fear closeness to others. This process is sometimes referred as disorganized attachment.

People who experience psychological trauma are more likely to enter into abusive relationships. They tend to have more problems with romantic relationships, friendships, and authority figures compared to other people. Given the trauma of loss of family, the abuse by jailers, and the horrors faced at home, the children being held in detention facilities here in the U.S. are more likely to develop all of these social problems.

The Impact of Trauma on Learning

Psychological trauma causes problems with thinking clearly, reasoning, and problem solving. The traumatized mind’s default is crisis mode. It has learned that the world is unsafe and needs to be aware of potential threats. It does this by identifying and criticizing problems of the past, analyzing potential threats in the present, or anticipating catastrophes of the future. As a result people who have experienced trauma have problems staying calm, regulating behavior, and learning new information.

All of this brain activity makes it incredibly difficult to concentrate, let alone navigate the rigors of education. Children who have a history of trauma demonstrate developmental delays, learning difficulties, and behavioral problems in school. Without an intervention they are less likely to achieve in the academic realm, and more likely to have problems achieving stable, high paying employment.

The children being held in detention already had a socioeconomic disadvantage when they arrived at the U.S. border. The current policy and environments these children and their parents are being held in makes it worse. Remember, some of the risk factors for developing psychological trauma include economic disadvantage and having parents who experienced trauma. The current policy of treating immigrants like prisoners is more likely to create psychological trauma not just for those being held, but also their future children. This type of policy manufactures inter-generational trauma.

Impact of Trauma on Mental Health

In short, psychological trauma is bad for mental health. The negative worldview, self-view, and hyper-arousal trauma creates leads to all sorts of mental health issues. People who have a history of psychological trauma are more prone to volatile, oppositional, and extreme behaviors. Emotionally they tend to be prone to defensiveness, aggression, spaciness, and difficulty regulating emotions. They are also more likely to demonstrate dangerous behaviors like self-harm, unsafe sex, recklessness, substance use, and suicide. There is plenty of data which demonstrates that childhood trauma alters brains development.

Children who experience trauma are more likely to develop the following types mental health disorders later in life: Schizophrenia (and other psychotic disorders), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depressive Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Eating Disorders, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Personality Disorders. As a clinician who has worked on healing with hundreds of people who navigate hallucinations, delusions, or personality disorders I have yet to meet a person experiencing such a disorder that was not exposed to childhood trauma.

Poor mental health does not just cause psychological suffering and problems with functioning, it is associated with increased risk of physical health issues as well. People with mental health issues are at increased risk for heart-disease, diabetes, and inflammatory conditions. People diagnosed with serious mental illness (schizophrenia spectrum, bipolar disorder, or severe depression) have a decreased life expectancy by 20 years.

Impact of Current Policies as a Whole

In this article we explored the nature of psychological trauma, its effects on the mindbody, and the long-term outcomes. The Trump administration’s current policies are traumatic acts that will cause lasting harm. Indefinite detention, keeping people in cages, and family separation, of migrants who are already fleeing violence will cause the development mental and physiological health problems. These policies are likely to cause economic and academic, and long-lasting inter-generational trauma. It is impossible to tell the totality of suffering this is creating now. Reuniting families, ending indefinite detention, and creating humane solutions that involve healing, nurturing, and hope is essential for our collective health in the present and the future.