Trauma and HIV

Alisha OstbergBlog, living with HIV, support, Trauma

What is Trauma? These days we hear a lot of talk about Trauma and experiences that may have been traumatic in our lives. Trauma is described by the American Psychological Association as an “emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster”. The APA goes on to note that “Longer term reactions [can] include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea”. Experiences of Trauma are especially relevant in our childhood years as often we do not have the ability to buffer those experiences and protect our brains from its detrimental effects. Trauma can include stressful events leading to specific reactions within the brain that cause us to develop reactive patterns; affecting our ability to behave in future situations. Tolerable Stress, particularly in our childhood, can be a conduit towards building our healthy capacity to cope with future traumatic events however; traumatic events that occur frequently can also lead to what is described as “toxic stress”. Stress therefore, can be described in the three ways, Positive Stress, Tolerable Stress, and Toxic Stress. Toxic Stress in children is defined by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2014) as “…strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress management system. Stressful events that are chronic, uncontrollable, and/or experienced without children having access to support from caring adults tend to provoke these types of toxic stress responses. Studies indicate that toxic stress can have an adverse impact on brain architecture”.   I would assert here, that adults also experience toxic stress however, as adults if our response systems in our brains are not fully developed (due to previous experiences of toxic stress) our ability to cope with stress effectively will be diminished. Many people who are living with HIV have traumatic experiences related to their diagnosis and the resulting effects on their interpersonal relationships. As an example, domestic violence or experiences of living in an abusive situation can have effects on how we experience and react to other relationships in our lives. Those who may be experiencing domestic violence may be fearful in their interactions with others and less likely to engage in relationships where they may be vulnerable to this risk. Experiences of Trauma can be very difficult to work through and therefore each individual must be aware of their own coping capacity. For those who are looking to work on issues of past Trauma it is essential to connect with professional support as well as having ample support in your personal life to deal with any feelings that may arise as a result of the experience.