• Human Trafficking and PTSD: Connections


    Professionals are learning that many women who are or have been sexually trafficked suffer from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Many survivors aren’t familiar with the symptoms.

    So What Is Trauma?

    Traumatologists at Intensive Trauma Therapy in Morgantown, West Virginia describe trauma is “anything that overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope. When something traumatic occurs, the left side of the brain temporarily shuts down and the experience is process primarily by the right side.

    The left side of the brain helps us make sense of events in and orderly, organized manner. It helps us identify what is in the past, what’s going on how, what what will take place in the future.

    The right side of the brain helps us solve problems and experiences time in the here-and-now. But it stores traumatic memories in bits and pieces because it cannot produce a linear story. For this reason, trauma-related experience that happened years ago can feel as if they are still occurring.

    The ramifications of these factors can have terrible effects on the life of the trauma survivor. They can reach into every area of an individual’s life because they can change how the person views objects, events, circumstances, him/herself, others, and the world at large. These results can be bewildering to the person and to those around him or her.

    PTSD Symptoms

    Symptoms can vary from person to person but include flashbacks and nightmares, zoning out (dissociation), emotional numbness, depression, insomnia, rage, suicidal fixation, guilt, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, avoidance (of people, places, objects, smells or anything that reminds the person of the traumatic experience).

    PTSD, Human Trafficking, and the War Veteran Connection

    While much research has been done about how PTSD affects war veterans, little has been done regarding the influence of PTSD among those who have been trafficked. However, according to a recent article by Holly Smith, similarities exist.

    • Both war combatants and those who are trafficked can’t just quit or leave. They are forced by the nature of their circumstances to be traumatized over and over again and to witness the traumatization of their friends and comrades over and over again. They are forced to snuff out their instinctual “fight or flight” response. And they are threatened not to quit and know that quitting comes with an enormous price.
    • Both war combatants and those who are trafficked are forced to sacrifice themselves to act in ways that morally dehumanize both them and society. They do not want to kill. They do not want to or participate in human trafficking and be bought and sold. They do not choose it for themselves, and their participation often leads to an internal war of identity.
    • In order to survive, war combatants and those who are trafficked must shut down part of themselves. The clinical term for the psychological aspect of self-protection that typically takes place is dissociation. But both groups find a way to deaden themselves to the pain through dissociation, substance abuse, or giving in to the desire to live and to thrive.

    Are you in need of help?

    National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC):  1-888-373-7888

    For further information and resources, visit Holly Smith’s blog, Breaking the Silence.


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