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The Impact of Past Trauma on Psychological Distress

Trauma is a Psychological Reaction to a catastrophic event, such as an accident, rape, or natural disaster. After an incident, shock and Denial are common emotions. In the long run, responses can lead to unpredictable emotions, memories, strained relationships, and even physical discomfort like headaches or nausea. According to large-scale epidemiology studies (Kilpatrick et al., 2013; Benjet et al., 2016), the general population statistically experiences exposure to traumatic events on a regular basis. A large percentage of participants (approximately 56–74%) reported experiencing at least one potentially traumatic event (such as an assault or accident) during their lives (Norris, 1992; Kessler et al., 1995; Breslau, 2002; Atwoli et al., 2015). A history of trauma is a significant risk factor for Psychological Disorders, the most frequent of which is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (APA, 2013), as per the increasing research and clinical evidence (Davidson et al., 1991; Halligan and Yehuda, 2000; Keane et al., 2006).

Generally, the word "stress" is used to signify "distress". Distress is a poor emotional state or a negative stress reaction that frequently involves physiological reactivity. In some cases, the emotion's precise nature is unclear or difficult to pin down; in the majority of cases, it arises from feeling overwhelmed by demands, losses, or imagined dangers. It has the Detrimental Effect of causing physical and psychological maladaptation by potentially harming people's health. A history of preceding Trauma and Psychological Distress are Warning Signs of a Serious Depressive Disorder, the most prevalent of which is PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Other Distress Outcomes include anxiety, clinical or psychological comorbidities, functional disruptions, prolonged depressive episodes, etc. These results are the Indirect Effects of distress, although they can result from a variety of other reasons.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious condition with Prolonged Consequences that certain individuals may experience after going through very stressful experiences like war, terrorism, criminal activity, accidents, or natural disasters. Following a traumatic event, Reactions like fear, shock, guilt, anger, and anxiousness are common, and for the majority of individuals, they pass with time. But for someone with PTSD, these emotions persist and even worsen, becoming so intense that they prevent them from functioning normally. People with PTSD can't function as effectively as they could, before the incident that made it happen. An adult must experience all of the following symptoms for at least One Month in order to be diagnosed with PTSD:

  • At least one symptom that has returned (flashbacks, bad dreams or terrifying thoughts).

  • At least one sign of avoidance

  • At least two or more signs of arousal and reactivity

  • At least two mental or cognitive signs

We must comprehend the differences between Trauma Reactions on an individual basis. The link between Past Trauma, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Psychological Distress serves as the foundation for two potential Psychodynamic Constructs. These constructs are used by people to hide or alleviate conflicts or stressors (Beresford, 2012). They are identified as:

1. Defence Mechanisms

2. Alexithymia

Defence mechanisms are Automatic Reaction Patterns that the Ego uses to shield itself from the stress brought on by psychological conflict. It is conceivable that a certain sort of defensive mechanism may act as a Mediator in the development of psychological issues following trauma. According to research, students who were traumatised and deployed immature defences tended to experience more psychological suffering. This outcome confirmed earlier research on the role of immature defence in modulating the effects of, for instance, childhood trauma on adult psychopathology (Finzi-Dottan and Karu, 2006; Nickel and Egle, 2006). These defences might be Mature or Immature depending on how much they distort reality. Based on Psycho-Social Development and Degree of Adaptability, there are 4 kinds of defence mechanisms that are arranged hierarchically (Vaillant, 1192). They are as follows:

  • Psychotic Defences

  • Immature Defences

  • Neurotic Defences

  • Mature Defences,

However, immature defensive systems are not as effective or mature. The continued usage of these defences may result in persistent problems. In fact, they may keep you from experiencing emotional problems or anxiety because they hinder you from recognizing the underlying cause. One of the damaging consequences of having an immature defence system is the psychodynamic construct of "Alexithymia".

Nemiah and Sifneos (1970) coined the term "Alexithymia," which is characterised as having trouble detecting and explaining feelings and instead depending on externally focused thoughts (EOT; Taylor et al., 1997). But unprocessed and unresolved emotions that have built up in the body might subsequently Disrupt the Physiological and Neurological system, leading to health issues and a variety of psychological distress symptoms (e.g., Pennebaker and Beall, 1986; Karukivi et al., 2010; Marchini et al., 2018; Martino et al., 2019a). The fact that alexithymia frequently has a negative correlation with both physical and psychological health but a positive correlation with physical sickness, somatization, anxiety, and depression (Taylor et al., 1991; Sayar et al., 2003) is therefore not surprising (Honkalampi et al., 2000). In a survey, students who experienced trauma to a high degree exhibited a significant level of alexithymia, which was linked to increased psychological suffering (Zhu et al., 2006). According to these findings, alexithymia is not an Unconscious Defence Mechanism that suppresses certain stimuli as a protective measure (e.g., Wise et al., 1990; Kooiman et al., 1998). Defence Mechanisms and Alexithymia are often linked, however, the evidence for this is inconsistent.

The above-mentioned constructs are the psychologically distressing effects of past trauma. Trauma's effects can be undetectable, subtle, or extremely destructive. Different factors, such as an individual's characteristics, the nature and characteristics of the event(s), developmental processes, the significance of the trauma, and sociocultural factors, all affect how an event affects a person. It's now time to provide ourselves with the Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) majority of us need. TIC requires a thorough knowledge of traumatic stress reactions and typical reactions to trauma. Providers need to be aware of how trauma might impact, how therapy is presented, how patients interact with it, as well as how behavioural health treatments work. These interventions ought to encourage adults to become more aware of their defence strategies so they can dig deeper into their feelings and connect with their inner selves (Briere, 1996).


Siqi, F. & Man, C. & Yabing, W. (2020). The Impact of Past Trauma on Psychological Distress: The Roles of Defense Mechanisms and Alexithymia. Front Psychol

Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. (2014). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US)


This Blog on Psychology: The Impact of Past Trauma on Psychological Distress, has been contributed by Jinansha Badjatiya. Jinansha is currently pursuing her B.A. Hons. in Psychology from the Indian Institute of Psychology and Research (IIPR), Bangalore. She loves understanding and supporting people and animals who need help and chooses to work in the field of psychology through her intrinsic motivation. By applying her studies to her experiential learning, research work in NLP makes her more self-aware. She acknowledges the philosophical perspective of life and believes that psychology has a lot to do with philosophy. She aspires to be an Animal Assistant Therapist. She is part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP). GIRP is an IJNGP initiative to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.


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