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What is Trauma?

Trauma is defined by FHE Health as the result of an event that is particularly jarring for someone, whether it’s life-threatening or harmful physically or emotionally, and has lasting effects on their psychological health. Trauma is “an emotional response to a distressing event or situation that breaks [a] sense of security.” Traumatic events may be life-threatening, yet any events that overwhelm or isolate can result in trauma. Trauma sets off an “alarm” that triggers the fight or flight response in your body and mind. This heightened state of arousal makes it difficult to feel calm and can be easily reactivated in other situations.

Mental trauma can result from any traumatic occurrence, including large-scale events like natural disasters and terrorism. However, these causes are less common than personal events like domestic violence, accidents or serious injury, sexual assault, homelessness and a variety of other circumstances that are mentally jarring and may induce trauma.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 61% of men and 51% of women report at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes. This would put mental trauma at the top of the list of most-common psychological health conditions. For perspective, these are some of the other most-common mental health disorders, courtesy of the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

  • Depression: 7.2% of American adults report having had a major depressive episode.

  • Anxiety Disorders: 19.1% of Americans say that they’ve suffered from anxiety at some point in their lives.

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: 3.6% of Americans are currently living with PTSD.

The Trauma Response is not Mental Illness

There’s no “right” way to respond to trauma. How you respond is less concerning to medical providers than how that response influences your life. Reactions to trauma may be severe or mild, but its really important to recognize that neither are a sign of mental illness.

Initial trauma responses may include:

  • Anxiety

  • Avoidance of similar situations

  • Confusion

  • Disassociation

  • Exhaustion

  • Fear

  • Feeling or acting “numb”

More severe trauma responses may include:

  • Distress with no relief or moments of calm

  • Intense, intrusive thoughts of traumatic events

  • Severe dissociation

Delayed trauma responses, which occur longer after traumatic events have occurred, may include:

  • Anxiety about flashbacks

  • Avoiding any feelings or activities related to the event

  • Depression

  • Fatigue or other sleep disorders

  • Fear of the event happening again

Another factor that leads to trauma as a community-based condition is that risk factors tend to vary on socioeconomic grounds. Impoverished communities are more prone to a large homeless population and lower levels of economic and physical security. Domestic, sexual and general violence rates are often generational in nature and require a much deeper understanding of history repeating itself in the lived experiences of both the victims of violence and the perpetrator. This doesn’t excuse bad behavior so much as explain it.

So why all this talk about trauma?

Nordic model advocates aggressively peddle the notion that all sex workers are traumatized and are in need of extensive and sometimes exploitative interventions and therapeutic methodologies that don’t really have any basis in fact. Sure, therapy might be a great idea but its not for everyone. Yoga gives a lot of people peace but not everybody wants to do yoga. Equine therapy, which is an absolutely amazing experience, if everyone really knows what they’re doing, it is absolutely helpful for people who have experienced violence. Medication - the medical industrial complex go-to - can have side effects and its really difficult to cycle off the meds and sometimes is more harmful than helpful.

Nordic Model advocates also sincerely believe that wiping out the buyer market by scaring or shaming them will have the desired effect of wiping out the trading of sex and yet they make absolutely no concession to the impact that capitalism has on our economic ability to survive. As we know well through our long and storied history of abolitionism, shaming is an ineffective tool for stopping people from doing anything. Shaming people for activities the rest of society may not approve of also denies that compulsive and impulsive behaviors are often the result of one's own traumatic experiences and creates a cycle of trauma that can become generational and leads to more trauma and more trauma responses.

Breaking the cycle of trauma is a long road and advocates should be willing to play the “long game” when providing services and support to victims, survivors and people who trade sex for whatever reason. Treating people who are currently or formerly trading sex with dignity and respect, recognizing that their needs probably don't match your needs and the trauma that they are working to overcome may not be reflective of what your imagination conjures up is a giant leap forward.

Most importantly, make sure that your own trauma is not what drives you.

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