The emotional and mental effects of human trafficking


The emotional and mental effects of human trafficking are staggering.

Some approximate that 14,500 to 17,000 individuals are illegally transported to the United States every year for the purpose of exploitation (Roby JL, Turley J, Cloward JG. U.S. response to human trafficking: is it enough? J Immigr Refug Stud. 2008;6(4):508-525).

Due to poverty and lack of education, even more men, women, and children turn to or are forced into prostitution.

Sexual abuse results in changes to the somatosensory cortex, the area of the brain that processes input from the body to create sensations and perceptions. Women who were sexually abused had thinning in the area where the genitalia were located,” according to Jens Pruessner, associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal.

Many sexual-abuse survivors report sexual problems in adulthood, including reductions in desire and sensation; sometimes they suffer from chronic genital pain.

PTSD Associated Symptoms and the Percent of Trafficked Women Ranking These Symptoms as Severe
Recurrent thoughts/memories of terrifying events 75%
Feeling as though the event is happening again 52%
Recurrent nightmares 54%
Feeling detached/withdrawn 60%
Unable to feel emotion 44%
Jumpy, easily startled 67%
Difficulty concentrating 52%
Trouble sleeping 67%
Feeling on guard 64%
Feeling irritable, having outbursts of anger 53%
Avoiding activities that remind them of the traumatic or hurtful event 61%
Inability to remember part or most of traumatic or hurtful event 36%
Less interest in daily activities 46%
Feeling as if you didn’t have a future 65%
Avoiding thoughts or feelings associated with the traumatic events 58%
Sudden emotional or physical reaction when reminded of the most hurtful or traumatic events (Zimmerman et al., 2006) 65%

As a mental health or medical professional, it is always wise to assess for sexual abuse when presented with the following complaints as they are common co-occurring disorders:

  • PTSD
  • Eating disorders 
  • Depression
  • Suicide
  • Self-Injurious behaviors
  • Self-blame
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Hyper and hypo sexuality
  • Difficulties with trust

Evidence-Based Therapeutic Treatment Options for Trafficking and Sexual Abuse Victims:

Cognitive Therapy
  • Aims to challenge dysfunctional thoughts based on irrational or illogical assumptions.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
  • Combines cognitive therapy with behavioral interventions such as exposure therapy, thought stopping, or breathing techniques.
Exposure Therapy
  • Aims to reduce anxiety and fear through confrontation of thoughts (imaginal exposure) or actual situations (in vivo exposure) related to the trauma.
 Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
  • Combines general clinical practice with brief imaginal exposure and cognitive restructuring (rapid eye movement is induced during the imaginal exposure and cognitive restructuring phases).
Stress Inoculation Training
  • Combines psycho-education with anxiety management techniques such as relaxation training, breathing retraining, and thought stopping. (Rauch & Cahill, 2003)
Research shows increasingly that the brain can change dramatically when provided with the right type of support and emotional nourishment.
There is help and there is hope.

4 thoughts on “The emotional and mental effects of human trafficking

  1. I cannot tell you how much this post helped me to recover, if only because it points out that my trauma symptoms are common. I have been trying to locate the study you mentioned “Zimmerman et al. 2006.” Would you please give a link to it? Thank you so much for writing and sharing.

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