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.

How Stress Works

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What is stress?

Stress is the mindbody’s way of reacting to a challenge. Things that can cause stress are known as stressors. Stressors can be external and arise from the environment surrounding a person, such as the chronic rain of Portland. Stressors can also be internal and stem from thoughts, feelings or bodily functions. As a response to stressors the human body releases a series of hormones; the primary stress hormone is named cortisol.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The Autonomic Nervous System is a control system in the body that regulates heart rate, respiration, digestion, eyesight, urination and sexual arousal. The autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. When a person perceives a stressor, the mindbody responds by activating the Sympathetic Nervous System, an inflammatory reaction also known as the Fight-or-Flight response. The function of the Fight-or Flight is to aid a person in danger. Other common stress reactions include freezing, or fainting.

These reactions were useful tools for the survival of our ancestors when they lived in the wilderness. Amping up the body to fight, flee, or freeze is an excellent response to a hungry jungle cat. Unfortunately, while our civilization, culture, and stressors have evolved our mindbodies haven’t changed much over the millennia. The Sympathetic Nervous System’s response to stress isn’t necessarily the most helpful way to deal with the fact that taxes are due in 4 days and I need to gather my paperwork to get started.

When the stressor is no longer present or has been deemed to be dealt with by the mindbody, the Parasympathetic Nervous System activates. (If you’re trying to memorize these terms, remember when trying to slow down the mindbody activates its parachute, thus it’s called the Parasympathetic Nervous System.) When this system activates the mindbody relaxes and returns to homeostasis, its normal state of existence. This means when the mindbody is no longer experiencing stress the heart rate and respiration slow down, digestion starts back up, muscles relax, the mind becomes more flexible. This process is also known as the relaxation response.

Autonomic Nervous System

How do stress and cortisol affect the mindbody?

Cortisol stimulates glucogenesis in the mindbody. This means that cortisol helps the mindbody turn glycogen (the primary energy reserves in the body) into glucose (the primary fuel of the body). This mindbody creates this energy to deal with the stressor at hand. In response the mindbody increases blood flow, blood pressure, muscle tension, and sweating. The pupils dilate to take in extra light, the stomach stops digesting food, and the bladder relaxes preventing the need to urinate. Stress causes an increase in emotional reactivity, and restricts the focus of the mind to the stresses at hand; often this gets experienced as anxiety, anger, fear, or worry. Intense stressors activate different part of the brain’s decision making processes and focuses on more reflex like reactions. Stress activates the creation of short-term emotional memories which are also known as flashbulb memories. Cortisol also can weaken the activity of the immune system, and slows down the process of wound healing.

These are great responses to imminent danger. These actions help make the mindbody stronger for a fight, and faster to flee. When we freeze, the restriction of focus can help us in making decisions without triggering that big jungle cat; when we faint the hope is that jungle cat leaves us alone because it thinks we’re already dead. Unfortunately, most modern problems don’t necessitate this kind of response.

Chronic stress, stress that never resolves can lead to physiological, mental, and spiritual problems. It can cause headaches (including migraines), muscle tension and pain, chest pain, fatigue, upset stomachs, urinary problems, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, anger, depression, loss of interest in activities of pleasure, and a lack of motivation. Chronic stress may also cause gingivitis, chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, insomnia, aggression, rashes, hair loss, poor concentration, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and suicidal thoughts. Long-term exposure to cortisol can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for regulating memory and spatial navigation. Common behavioral maladaptations to chronic stress include overeating, undereating, social withdrawal, overworking, sleep problems, and drug abuse.

Exposure to extreme stressors, for short periods of time can be harmful. Specific phobias (irrational persistent fears), Panic Disorder (persistent panic attacks), Acute Stress Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may occur as a result of exposure to intense levels of stress.

Is all stress bad?

Not at all. We need stress in order to motivate us to develop, grow and survive. Without stress you would never feel the need to acquire food, learn, or to adapt and cope with the everyday challenges our ever changing lives present. Stress that leads to a positive outcome is known as eustress, whereas stress that leads to negative outcomes is known as distress. A common example of eustress is the acquired knowledge a student gains by taking time to study and master material before a big exam. Properly dealing with stress leads to the experience of positive emotions and activates the parasympathetic nervous system allowing our bodies to relax. Thus it is important that we develop coping mechanisms to deal with stressors on a day-to-day basis.

What are specific coping mechanisms to deal with stress?

You use coping mechanisms to deal with stress every single day. Sometimes you use your problem solving skills to tackle a situation head-on. You might laugh, take a walk, read a book, create some art, or solve a puzzle. Exercise is a great way to alleviate the problems associated with stress. Sometimes people relieve stress by communicating with friends and family; research shows that social support helps ward off the negative effects of stress. Other ways to deal with stress include slowing down, relaxed breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga. Participating in meaningful activities is another great way to destress.  Different people are able to discover their own ways of relaxing and destressing.

How do I perceive stress?

There are many models that help explain how people interpret and deal with stress. One of the more popular models is known as Lazarus and Folkman’s Transactional Model of stress and coping. The first time a person is presented with a stimulus they undergo what is known as the primary appraisal. That means the individual takes in the stimulus and then decides if that individual stimulus is considered a stressor or if it is benign.

If it is a stressor the person then makes a secondary appraisal and decides how to deal with the stimulus. In this stage the person uses their coping mechanisms, both problem solving and emotional to deal with the stressor. If the person resolves the problem the stressor she experiences a positive emotion and we call the stressor eustress. If the person is not able to resolve the problem or comes to an unfavorable solution she may experience distress or reevaluates the stressor and we call the stressor distress.

Stress Model

The most important thing to remember from this model is that depending on the type of stress and our available coping mechanisms we will either interpret a stressor as eustress creating positive results, or we will interpret the stressor as distress and experience negative results.

 

Other factors that may play a role in stress.

Factors that have been shown to reduce cortisol levels in the human body include:

  • Magnesium
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Music therapy
  • Massage Therapy
  • Laughing
  • Black Tea
  • Dancing
  • Exercise and Yoga
  • Meditation

Factors that have been shown to increase cortisol levels in the human body include:

  • Caffeine
  • Sleep Deprivation
  • Intense physical exercise (often to create the energy required)
  • Burnout
  • Trauma
  • Anorexia
  • Calorie Restriction
  • Continuous Consumption of Alcohol