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The Aftershocks of Abuse: Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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PTSD from Sexual AssaultPost-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a response to experiencing, witnessing or hearing about a horrifying or life-threatening event. In some people, these events – which can include natural disasters, war, death of a loved one, and rape – trigger cognitive and emotional responses that threaten the long-term well-being of the victim or witness. People struggling with PTSD experience a range of symptoms, including: flashbacks or nightmares of the traumatic event; heightened attunement to potential danger; difficulties with trust; disruptions in sleep and concentration. Not everyone who experiences or witnesses trauma develops PTSD; Medical News Todayreports that that 7 to 8 percent of Americans grapple with PTSD at some point in their lives.

In recent years, the term “complex PTSD” (C-PTSD) has been used to describe behaviors, thoughts, beliefs and actions that some people develop as a result of being subjected to long-term trauma.  C-PTSD often takes root in childhood as chronic trauma occurs when young victims are dependent on their abusers for many years and lack the power to change their circumstances. Beauty After Bruises, an organization that assists survivors of childhood trauma, describes the consequences of long-term trauma on youth: “For those who go through this as children, because the brain is still developing and they’re just beginning to learn who they are as an individual, understand the world around them, and build their first relationships – severe trauma interrupts the entire course of their psychologic and neurologic development.”

Complex PTSD may include the symptoms of PTSD, but this trauma response reaches even deeper, influencing how people see themselves and the world; disrupting their ability to connect with others, control their emotions, and remain present; coloring their understanding of the perpetrator; and altering or diminishing their spiritual beliefs. The website of Bridges to Recovery, a mental health treatment facility, reports that survivors of chronic trauma “experience what is termed a mental death; they have lost their pre-trauma sense of identity.” The beliefs and behaviors that emerge from C-PTSD reflect survivors’ attempts to navigate life while living with trauma. While some of these strategies are effective in the short-term, many of these behaviors – such as substance abuse, self-harm, and risk-taking – ultimately compromise survivors’ lives and put them at risk for re-victimization.

Since many human trafficking victims are recruited for labor and sexual exploitation when they are children, we can expect to find many of these survivors struggling with C-PTSD after they have escaped their enslavement. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, reports a direct link between human trafficking and C-PTSD. Given this correlation, we may assume chronic post-traumatic stress disorder is prevalent among other young victims of abuse, such as Boy Scouts and child athletes, who often endure long-term relationships with sexual perpetrators.

While people living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder face enormous challenges, there is hope. Studies have shown that treatments such as psychotherapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and medication help trauma survivors minimize the influence of C-PTSD and regain control of their lives. We believe that survivors of long-term trauma are entitled to resources that allow them to access their preferred healing modalities. To this end, our attorneys use civil law to hold perpetrators and the systems that support them accountable for their abuses. If you or someone you know is a survivor of long-term trauma, please contact us for a free consultation.

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