Are disability and trauma connected?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

With more and more celebrities coming forward to speak about mental health due to upsetting events in their lives, we thought it was time to explore the links between being disabled and if/how this can be linked to trauma.

We generally think of trauma as large events like wars and earth quakes causing flashbacks or nightmares long after the event…but lots of other experiences can leave us with emotional ‘scars’ which seem difficult to heal. So, how does this apply if you have an impairment?

Trauma happens when our body is interrupted in its instinctual drive to protect itself through fighting back or escaping the situation (fight or flee). This instinct creates an enormous amount of energy in our bodies that needs somewhere to go.

However, if your mobility is affected, it is harder to fight back or escape. This can mean that all this energy doesn’t get used up and the event can become stuck in our minds and create havoc on our thoughts, sleep and behaviours. This alarm reaction can continue in our bodies and cause heightened anxiety, fatigue and other issues.

So, what disability-related events can be traumatic? Some of these may surprise you…

There are the obvious large events such as when you acquired your impairment. You may find it difficult to recall the details and emotions around your accident or injury, or your diagnosis if you have an illness. If you were born with an impairment, you may be finding the process of becoming an adult difficult such as managing PAs, making decisions, finding relationships and sometimes these events can be traumatic. Some of us experience traumatic pain and medical interventions or hospitalisations. This can be of an ongoing nature and therefore have a long-term impact on how our brain copes with stress. 

Most of us don’t think of the ongoing daily negative experiences as stressful, but those things over which we have limited control can build up and become small or even medium traumas which affect our wellbeing. Think about how much stress is caused when buildings and transport are not accessible for example, or the stress caused by comments, stares, exclusion and ignorance, discrimination in the job market, poor bedside manner and assessments.

Fatigue is another common issue, either due to impairment effects but equally because of knock-on effects (e.g. dealing with social services and other organisations, dealing with care tasks or medication side effects). Fatigue can greatly reduce our energy levels and therefore our resilience and ability to deal with and work through stress and trauma.

Over time, all of these experiences can rewire our brains and make it hard to break out of this cycle of anxiety and worry and constantly being on our guard. It can be difficult to feel relaxed and at peace: the alarm bells never switch off. We can sometimes become avoidant in our approach to life and people.

If you feel all or a lot of the points above apply in your life, then you may benefit from our support to deal with the trauma, unstick them, and move towards the future creatively with hope and imagination. How can we help with this? Our role as supporter!

Thankfully, we know the body and mind have a natural inclination to heal themselves, they sometimes just need support to re-start this process. We have a lot of skills in working with trauma, stress, pain and anxiety which can help you become unstuck and improve your resilience in the future.

We all have personal experience of being disabled and often draw on this when encouraging you to find creative solutions. And our knowledge of the difference between impairment and being disabled can really help you to unpick and discover more control over choices in your life.

Our role is to help you learn new ways to deal with setbacks, new ways to communicate with those around you and explore ways to reduce isolation so you can have more supportive meaningful relationships.

You can experiment with all of these new coping skills  with your therapist, which in turn encourages creative thinking, reduces stress and helps to re-wire your brain to improve resilience.

Therapy is not a quick fix, but it does work if you have a good relationship with your therapist, are motivated, and take time outside sessions to reflect on your life and make changes. As a society, we are obsessed with quick fixes, but changing how you think and feel about yourself takes time. The above gives you an idea of how long therapy may take: if you feel a lot of the issues raised apply to you, then obviously things are going to take longer than if only one issue applies and it is going to take time to develop a close relationship with your therapist. Please more about committing to therapy here .

I hope this blog goes some way into explaining how important it is to understand how disability and trauma can be connected. Do also read our other blog on how you can protect yourself from trauma. As always, if you want to find out more how we can support you, please do contact Allie on allie@spokzpeople.org.uk or 07733681883.

Best wishes, Mel