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Trauma and Social Isolation: How Do They Relate?

Today’s mental health landscape is turbulent. Worldwide events of the past few years have created some of the most widespread mental health strains and stress the world has ever known. Though awareness of mental illness and psychological health might be at an all-time high in many places, the number of people living with significant mental health needs (and the resulting demand for effective treatment, know-how, and interventions) is staggering.

This article will touch on two obstacles to mental health that have affected countless people, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic: trauma and social isolation.

Defining Trauma and Social Isolation

In psychology and mental health, trauma and social isolation are distinct phenomena that affect the brain and person in different ways. The way they interact with each other, like different chemicals in a test tube, is important to understand, given the current climate and fact that many more people have experienced both within a relatively short period. So, what are they?

While trauma can also refer to physical disturbance or damage to the body (such as a tissue or brain injury), emotional or psychological trauma is what happens to the mind in the “aftermath of exceptionally stressful occurrences.” Emotional trauma can take many forms depending on the circumstances or events that caused it.

Causes of trauma can include events that happen in an instant or grow and worsen over time. A car accident, sudden death or loss, or a quick change in circumstances can all cause trauma. Conversely, trauma can also develop over time. Neglect, sexual abuse, prolonged hardship, an abusive childhood, chronically poor health, poverty, and more can also cause trauma.

If not treated, the effects of trauma can last for a lifetime. Symptoms of trauma can include difficulties sleeping; prolonged or overwhelming feelings of sadness, depression, irritability, or numbness; difficulties regulating eating patterns or focusing; avoiding or shutting off social connections; and more.

Social Isolation is distinct from trauma and refers to a specific set of circumstances that create adverse psychological effects. Social isolation differs from chronic loneliness or depression, though some of the symptoms and signs can be similar.

Social isolation (SI) is caused by external circumstances that involuntarily limit one’s ability to connect with others in social ways. One current example is how COVID-19 social distancing and lockdown restrictions forced people around the globe to limit or avoid most social interactions for extended periods. This is not the only way people might experience social isolation, but it’s the most widespread example of imposed SI in recent history.

Like trauma, SI’s effects can also be widespread and long-lasting. Social isolation and loneliness can cause the brain to over-produce cortisol, a chemical that can create problems when produced in excess. Signs of SI include difficulties connecting with others, self-doubt or low self-esteem, socialization burnout, and other.

These effects can ultimately lead to serious medical problems, a shortened life span, increased risk levels for conditions such as dementia or depression, and reduced cognitive capacity.

How They Affect Each Other

Though they aren’t necessarily linked, SI can cause or exacerbate trauma, and trauma can cause people to withdraw and experience SI. Both are caused by external circumstances that are usually outside an individual’s ability to prevent or change. Because of this, their effects can be extremely harmful and damaging.

Both can cause long-term symptoms that spread from psychological effects into other physical areas of the body. And one can heighten or trigger the adverse outcomes of the other when both are present. Therefore, it’s essential to be aware of both and how they work in order to detect and treat either quickly.

Warning Signs and Next Steps

Here are tips for detecting trauma or SI in your life or the lives of your loved ones, as well as suggestions for how to proceed should you notice any of those symptoms or suspect that either one might be present.

Make Regular Mental Health Checks Part of Your Routine

Take stock of how your mental health and emotional wellbeing compare with the lists of symptoms for trauma and SI above. Though anyone can experience short irregular bouts of any of those symptoms and not necessarily have trauma or SI, if you experience consistent or severe episodes of any of the symptoms listed here, it’s important to take note of this.

Sustained adverse emotional states usually indicate that you’ve experienced trauma that should be addressed.

Talk to Someone You Trust

If you are experiencing sustained symptoms, talk to someone about your concerns. Ask if the person has recently noticed those symptoms (or others) in your behavior. Talk about your recent history and ask for a “second pair of eyes” to help you think about your experiences through the lens of trauma and SI. Have you been exposed to situations or scenarios that could fall into either of those categories?

Seek Professional Help or Psychological Counseling

If you have seen things in yourself that might result from trauma or SI, it’s best to seek professional help. It’s hugely important to treat these types of mental and cognitive strains with the seriousness they deserve.

If untreated, psychological stresses like trauma and SI can have long-lasting or permanent effects on your cognitive function, relationships, emotional health, and even physical health. A mental health professional can provide treatment and work with you to determine the steps to help you recover from trauma or SI-related mental stress.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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About the Author: Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in multiple industries, including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education. She implements her health knowledge into every aspect of her life, including her position as a yoga instructor and raising her two children.

July is BIPOC Mental Health Month

Observed each July and formerly recognized as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, BIPOC Mental Health Month highlights the unique mental health challenges and needs of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC). Please join us in recognizing the struggles of BIPOC and bringing awareness to the need for adequate, accessible, culturally relevant mental health treatment, care, and services.

www.rtor.org and its sponsor Laurel House are committed to the advancement of racial equity and social justice and to making mental health services available to all.

Photo by Brooks Leibee on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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