PTSD and Human Trafficking

PTSD. You may have heard this term before when talking about war or someone who is returning from war, but what you may not know is that many different types of people can experience PTSD and can experience it differently. In this blog we are going to look at what PTSD is, how it affects people, and why we see it so commonly in survivors of human trafficking.

What is PTSD?

PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The DSM-5 defines it as: When a person is exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, in the following way(s): Direct exposure, witnessing the trauma, learning that a relative or close friend was exposed to trauma, or indirect exposure to aversive details of trauma (usually through professional duties).

PTSD symptoms can begin directly after the incident or can take months to years to present. Some symptoms include:

  • Irritability or aggression
  • Risky or destructive behavior such as drinking, smoking, or drug use
  • Hypervigilance (being abnormally alert to a threat or danger)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping

Even though research is limited on the topic of human trafficking survivors we do know that many survivors and victims suffer from high levels of PTSD along with other mental health illnesses. A recent study showed that out of 204 participants studied, 77% had symptoms of PTSD.

So why is this?

If we look at the nature of human trafficking we know that it is a very destructive crime that affects the mind and body in brutal ways. We also know that PTSD occurs more often in instances of human violence versus non-human violence such as natural disasters or car accidents. With that in mind remember that many victims experience physical, sexual, and emotional abuse repeatedly for many years. With repeated abuse the brain can get stuck in a “flight, fight, or freeze” mode. Basically, this is the way the brain responds to danger. We don’t get to choose how we respond; our brains instinctively choose for us. When our body goes into one of these modes we are flooded with hormones that allow us to defend ourselves. This is what is happening when you hear stories of mothers lifting cars off their babies. Crazy right? When safety is achieved the hormones diminish and we go back to normal. What happens with survivors is they never truly enter safety while they are trafficked. That is where PTSD comes in. The brain doesn’t go back to “normal” and in fact can be rewired by the trauma if severe enough.

What can we do? 

The best we can do to support those we love with PTSD is to be there no matter what. PTSD can look like someone who is angry all the time or someone who has consistent dramatic outbursts. Sometimes they can be quiet and feel alone or they may be on top of the world and engage in those risky behaviors we talked about earlier. No matter how hard it gets, we must remember the person underneath the symptoms and love them regardless. We can do this by being present (consistent and trustworthy), listening, and showing patience. In the end, you can simply ask how they feel and what you can do to help out.

Remember: love wins. every time.

If you are interested in learning more about human trafficking and the way it affects the brain sign up for our training classes here. We will facilitate any of our trainings to any group you’d like, so give us a call. You can view our other trainings here


The Relationship of Trauma to Mental Disorders Among Trafficked and Sexually Exploited Girls and Women

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