The Impact of Trauma and Adversity on Mental Health

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The Impact of Trauma and Adversity on Mental Health

By Perry Emerick


A while ago I was meeting with someone. They shared with me how an intense encounter with another person brought about an almost panic-like response. To make matters worse, they found themselves in this panic-like state often. From the outside, this person was a very capable and competent person. However, in certain situations, their whole body felt like it literally changed.

I later came to learn that this person had experienced significant verbal and physical abuse as a child.

As a result, they would often find themselves in this panicked state. They never felt fully at peace or able to feel safe. Without the capacity to feel safe around others, they suffered severe anxiety and difficulty in relationships.

The word “trauma” can be very misunderstood and difficult to understand. When most of us think of trauma, we think about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That type of trauma is recognized as an extremely disturbing and particularly intense physical and emotional event. However, trauma is not the event itself, but actually the emotional impact of those intense events. Here is a good definition of trauma:

Trauma is one’s response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms their ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.

Things like intense combat or severe car accidents are traumatic events. Trauma, however, is actually the response to those events. How someone responds to traumatic events can be different for everyone.

Traumatic events can range from the extreme end that lead to a PTSD diagnosis, to experiences that may not seem extreme. This might include observing violent images, being bullied, or even experiencing a parent’s intense anger. If it is not carefully cared for and responded to at the time, experiencing a traumatic event can result in a traumatic response. These responses can have a significant physical, emotional, mental, and relational impact on our lives.

Those especially at risk to trauma are kids.

Children do not have the same level of life experience and resources as adults. They struggle to rightly understand and process intense or overwhelming events in their life. Without help, this can often result in all kinds of physical and emotional wounds which will often develop much later in life.

The premiere study that brought so much of what we know about trauma to life was a joint study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente. That study began in 1995 and is now known as the ACES Study (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study). They sought to understand the connection between adverse experiences in childhood and physical, emotional and social struggles those individuals experienced over their lifetime.

The results of the ACES study were astounding. They developed a ten-question survey of experiences that happened before the age of 18. The respondents that scored higher were found to be considerably more likely to experience increased physical and/or emotional disturbances than those who scored zero or even just one.

They report that “…61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported that they had experienced at least one type of ACE, and nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.”

So, what does all this mean?

One of the most amazing things about how God created us is our intense need to survive and bring meaning out of our experiences.

With trauma, in our pursuit of survival, we often disconnect from our emotions and develop an underlying negative belief that we are the reason for our experiences.

This can produce all kinds of difficulties, particularly in the realm of mental health. Things like anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviors, and more. These symptoms are a result of trauma and not the way we were wired.

The good news is this: help is available. One of the best resources we have been given is relationships. Entering into safe, supportive, and understanding relationships and experiencing unconditional love goes a long way to helping people reduce and even overcome the effects of trauma. The church is uniquely designed for just that. 

Another way of finding help is engaging in trauma focused therapy. There are some incredible trauma therapists out there who are skilled in helping people heal from the effects of trauma, whether childhood or adult. 

I began this blog by sharing about an adult who had a very traumatic childhood. That person went to treatment, specifically trauma focused treatment. Over time they began to learn how to work through some of that trauma.

This revolutionized how they were able to interact with others. Their anxiety was greatly reduced and much more manageable.

They were even able to pursue some things they hadn’t been able to before.

Of course, everyone’s experiences are personal and their response to therapy is personal, but the point is this – there is hope! Understanding that our experiences can be re-understood and that healing is possible can change your whole outlook on life.