Being an immigrant in America can often leave us feeling like outsiders. At home, we may be conversational and caring, but at work or school, we may be reserved and timid.
Studies show that while forced migrants can make deliberate choices about their own identity, they are also likely to consider and adopt qualities their immediate environment considers to be advantageous, first.
Managing multiple identities over the course of a day (and eventually, a lifetime) can be exhausting. But how did it get this way? The reason can be traced all the way back to childhood.
34% of Latino immigrant parents and 29% of Latino immigrant adolescents experience trauma. Of those who experience trauma, 21% of parents and 9% of adolescents are at risk of PTSD. If you believe trauma is influencing your life more than your true desires are, keep reading to learn about how therapy can help heal immigration-related trauma.
The Connection Between Immigration and Developmental Trauma
Developmental trauma is the result of abandonment, abuse, and/or neglect during the first three years of a child’s life. It often disrupts their cognitive, neurological, and psychological development, as well as shapes their attachment to their parents.
While abandonment, abuse, and neglect all sound like obvious things to keep away from our children, for immigrating families, they can often happen unintentionally.
Entire families may already be outrunning violence back home, homelessness, food insecurity, and more in addition to keeping up with the demands of raising a child. There is no malicious intent—they are simply in the dark about and/or incapable of attending to the emotional and social needs of a developing child at this time.
Unfortunately, this can bring on lasting mental illness as adults like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or PTSD.
How Development Trauma Can Shape Our Sense of Identity
Humans are social by nature. A lot of who we are and how we think are shaped by the community around us. When we find gaps in information, we look to our environment to solve them for us. People who grew up in a consistent home with a strong sense of community are able to lean on those around them to help form their values, interests, and roles in society.
Those who grew up without this context had to pull back and use a wider social context to understand themselves. This is how immigration affects development; it can dismantle the very social foundation that children need to develop a strong sense of identity.
Language, common knowledge, cultural history, and social norms are all things we rely on to connect with others. When we find ourselves in a country with completely different ones, our cords of connection are cut. This makes it harder to regulate our emotions through social support and define who we are through our history and social roles.
The pains and frustrations of immigration can devastate a person’s spirit, despite how hardworking and competent they are as adults. Painful flashbacks, insecure attachment styles, and poor emotional regulation can all taint the lives of adults living with immigration-related PTSD.
How EMDR Can Help Change The Way We See Trauma
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a relatively new kind of therapy (developed in the past 30 years) that can successfully reduce and relieve the effects of disturbing thoughts, feelings, and traumatic memories.
It works by mimicking the ways in which our brain processes and stores information while we sleep. About 90 minutes after we fall asleep, our body enters Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep. This is when our brain is most active and we can experience intense dreams. REM stimulates the parts of our brain that process and store information we learned that day.
By tapping into these parts of the brain during EMDR therapy, we can help our brains re-associate painful memories with more neutral or even positive feelings instead.