Six ways that torture affects a person psychologically

“Emotionally I felt so much rage. All I thought about was revenge. I was constantly in a defensive mood. Everyone who knew me had to walk on eggshells.”

For A.M. in Armenia, torture did not just take its toll on his body, but on his mind too. The trauma from being tortured made him an angry and defensive person who mistrusted almost everyone with severe consequences for his family and community.

A.M.’s story is far from unique. Across the globe, torture rehabilitation centres help thousands of victims of torture each year.

What makes torture such a heinous crime is the fact that its impact goes far beyond the immediate physical or psychological pain. Torture can have serious long-term physical and mental health consequences for the victims.

Here are six ways that torture can affect a person:

Anger

The story of A.M. illustrates how torture and abuse can leave a victim angry and defensive years after the crime took place. The smallest things can trigger a reaction and start an argument. Family and friends will often be fearful of the victim, leaving the person isolated and ostracised. Social isolation and loneliness can have a negative impact on a person’s physical, mental and social health.

Anxiety

An anxiety disorder differs from normal stress and anxiety.

Torture survivors who suffer from an anxiety disorder are likely to feel a constant and unsubstantiated worry that causes significant distress and interferes with daily life. They will often struggle with recurring nightmares or flashbacks.

For some, certain sounds or sights associated with the trauma can trigger severe anxiety attacks or emotional numbing. This could be the sight of a person in uniform or the sound of footsteps approaching. As a vicious cycle, an anxiety attack is worsened by the fear of having another one.

A person suffering from anxiety will try to avoid social situations for fear of being judged, embarrassed, or humiliated.

Depression

Depression is widespread among survivors of torture. People suffering from depression often lose interest and pleasure in activities and are unable to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life. They also feel worthless or find it hard to concentrate. At its worst, they may experience recurring thoughts of death and suicide.

For different reasons, torture victims suffering from depression are often reluctant to seek treatment, which can have serious consequences for their health, including self-harm and insomnia. Research also shows that the longer a person waits before seeking treatment, the greater the damage can be in the long-term.

Emotional numbing and avoidance

A torture survivor suffering from emotional numbing and avoidance will go to great lengths to avoid any thoughts, conversations, activities, places or people that trigger a recollection of the trauma. The survivor may be profoundly emotionally constricted and detached. This can lead to social withdrawal and isolation.

Hyperarousal

A person suffering from hyperarousal symptoms has an extremely heightened alertness of his or her surrounding environment and can easily be startled.

Hyperarousal symptoms are usually constant and not triggered by an event or episode. The symptoms can leave the torture victim feeling stressed and angry, and not able to sleep, eat or concentrate. In addition, the person will often struggle with carrying out simple daily activities, such as getting dressed or going to the supermarket.

A person suffering from hyperarousal symptoms may also experience irritability or have outbursts of anger.

Sexual dysfunction

Some 51% of torture victims suffer from sexual dysfunction, which is particularly common among those who have suffered sexual torture or rape. It can also be linked to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or it can be a direct result of an assault.

Sexual dysfunction affects not only the relationship between victims and their partners, but may also affect the way victims interact with family, friends and colleagues. In addition, it is likely to affect their confidence, their enjoyment in life, and their morale. Instead, they will often feel isolated and alone.

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“Shackled”. Photo provided by PCATI

Many of the symptoms mentioned above are common in torture victims who have been diagnosed with PTSD. Other PTSD symptoms include insomnia, intrusive thoughts, nervousness and feelings of helplessness.

This is, however, just a small part of something much more complex. The psychological effects of torture vary from person to person which means that treatment should be the result of an individual assessment. Many torture rehabilitation centres offer holistic treatment that takes into account the individual needs of their clients.

In the case of A.M., he was able to rebuild his life and cope with his anger after seeking help at IRCT member centre FAVL.

“Thanks to FAVL, I have been granted a new spirit in life and have dampened the raging anger I had inside me,” said A.M. “Therapy has played a major role in getting me better again, rebuilding my relationships and becoming who I want to be.”

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