Scientific findings now confirm that trauma affects the nervous system (and in children, brain development) and can have a lasting impact. One study looked at the ‘adverse childhood experiences’ (ACEs) of 17,000 people, correlating their ‘ACE score’ with a range of medical and social problems.
According to this, people with high ACE scores are much more likely to develop mental health symptoms, abuse substances, have chronic illnesses and die early. Women are significantly more likely than men to have high ACE scores.
There are two ways through which adverse events have an impact:
- Trauma affects the developing brain and body and alters the body’s natural stress response mechanisms.
- Trauma increases the need to ‘self-soothe’ through inherently risky behaviours such as smoking, drinking, over-eating and engaging in risky sex — things that trauma survivors sometimes do to manage difficult feelings.
It is essential that these behaviours are recognised as coping responses rather than ‘bad choices’ if peer relationships are to be effective. The table below offers a list of behaviours, viewed from two perspectives: one is the professional or societal perspective and the other is from the perspective of the person who is exhibiting the behaviour.
Perhaps there lies purpose, strategy, and meaning behind what appears to be people’s dysfunctional behaviours? Consider the argument that trauma responses are the normal human responses to abnormal experiences involving horror and terror. This way of looking at trauma tends to normalise behaviours like ‘exaggerated startle response’ rather than seeing them as symptoms of an illness.