Written by Dr Keri Nixon.
I am a Consultant Forensic Psychologist and spend my week working with individuals who live with the impact of abuse. Part of the week I am based in a psychiatric secure hospital as a Clinical Lead and trauma specialist, working with both men and women and part of the week I work as a consultant working for the courts, police and in private practice. The significant factor underlying many of the individuals I work with is trauma. For this reason I work very much with a trauma focused model.
Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and in fear. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and isolated can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatised. For women who are trapped in abusive relationships these feelings of isolation and hopelessness are increased. Many of the women that Savera UK supports, have fled abusive relationships, honour based violence from extended family members, forced marriage and FGM. Escaping these forms of abuse requires women to leave not only their relationship but often their entire family and support structure. This can result in what we term complex trauma – trauma from the abuse itself and associated trauma from the subsequent stress, isolation and loss.
A survey of women using specialist BMER (Black, Minority Ethnic and Refugee) domestic abuse services found that 96% reported experiencing psychological, emotional and verbal abuse, 72% had experienced physical violence and 30% had experienced attempted and/or threats of murder (Imkaan, 2016). BMER women are often at higher risk of repeat victimisation, and face extra barriers to reporting abuse and seeking help. This extends to them seeking support for associated effects of abuse.
Depression, severe anxiety, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are the most common mental health consequences of abuse. Often women won’t realise they are experiencing symptoms of trauma. Symptoms include both psychological and physical symptoms. Psychological symptoms can include mood swings, anger, feeling lonely, sad, irritable, feelings of guilt, shame and feeling disconnected or numb. Physical symptoms can include insomnia or nightmares, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, racing heartbeat, agitation, aches and pains (headaches, stomach ache and back ache are common psychosomatic complaints), repeat illnesses and muscle tension.
This is why it is crucial that women escaping abusive relationships have a place they can seek support and safety. Trauma symptoms can be reduced and women can be helped to recover from the abuse they have suffered. For women who are suffering from the impact of abuse and trauma they need a place where they can connect to people so they don’t feel isolated and lonely, activities to take part in to build their self-esteem and confidence and for the more serious effects of trauma, specialist trauma treatment is recommended. I increasingly use EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. This helps individuals progress their traumatic memories and begin the journey to becoming a survivor.
For me, the most satisfying part of a very stressful job is helping women on this journey and seeing them becoming stronger and happier. If given the opportunity, every victim of abuse can become a survivor and this is why organisations like Savera UK are so crucial.