Understanding the Role of Disgust in Complex Trauma: Part II

disgust and complex trauma

Understanding the Role of Disgust in Complex Trauma: Part II

As explored in a previous blog post, disgust is a core emotion that functions to promote survival and prevent contamination with a harmful source.  There is a significant amount of research that has been conducted on the relationship between disgust and complex trauma. Interestingly, there seems to be a connection between the two phenomena in terms of both cognitive and emotional responses.


Disgust is one of the most primitive and powerful human emotions. It evolved to help us avoid disease, infection, and anything else that might make us sick or compromise our survival. But disgust isn’t just about staying healthy. It can also be used to keep us away from things that remind us of our worst fears and memories.


Complex trauma is a type of psychological trauma that occurs when a person’s emotional and cognitive defenses are overwhelmed by the experience of intense, prolonged, or repeated adversity and traumatic events. This can include sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence.  When someone has experienced complex trauma, they may experience a wide range of emotions, including overwhelm, loneliness, powerlessness, and disgust. 


Disgust can play a role in complex trauma by exacerbating the feelings of isolation and powerlessness.  This often happens as a result of feeling dehumanized or violated. The person may feel that their sense of self has been damaged in some way, and this can lead to feelings of disgust.  Some individuals may find it difficult to trust others and may feel intense shame and guilt about what has happened to them.  When these emotions and experiences are hidden or kept to oneself, it can be difficult to regulate emotions. This can lead to intense and overwhelming reactions, including disgust directed outwardly towards others and their behaviors or inwardly towards one’s own emotions, thoughts and/or behaviors.


Disgust is a natural reaction that helps us protect ourselves from harm. When we see something that disgusts us, our brain tells us to stay away from it – to avoid contact with it, both physically and emotionally. This reaction is essential for our survival, as it helps us avoid potentially dangerous situations.  Through this understanding, it makes sense that someone might have significant challenges recalling or sitting with memories from past experiences- traumatic moments filled with abusive words or actions and/or neglect.  It is important to recognize that often we will experience disgust along with intense feelings of shame, causing great discomfort.  Some researchers have found that individuals experiencing strong levels of disgust may also experience intense phobias, psychosomatic symptoms, and/or aggressive behavior when triggered.


Though disgust is a natural reaction, it can often be difficult to manage. Disgust can be incredibly intense.  When you feel disgust, your body often reacts with a sense of tension or tightness. Deep breathing can help to counteract this tension and calm your body down.  One of the best ways to manage disgust is to avoid the things that trigger it. If you know that certain sights, smells, or sounds make you feel sick, try to stay away from them as much as possible.  In addition, when you find yourself feeling disgusted, try to distract yourself with something else.


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