Ireland Baldwin made headlines this week when she announced that she has entered rehab. While one gossip site claims she’s seeking treatment for substance abuse, Baldwin, the daughter of Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin, says she’s undergoing therapy for “emotional trauma.” She posted the following message on Twitter on Monday:
“I am here to deal with some emotional trauma and getting intensive therapy in order to recover. Someday I’ll feel ready to share my story openly without feeling the way I do. Right now I just needed a breather. I needed a chance to work on myself and gather all the tools I need to overcome everything that I had been through and rid myself of all the pain I locked away in unreachable places.”
But what is “emotional trauma,” exactly?
The term has no medical definition, but it’s possible the 19-year-old model is using it to describe psychological trauma or even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), says licensed clinical psychologist Luana Marques, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
According to the American Psychological Association, “trauma” is an emotional response to a terrible event, like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, a person will typically experience shock and denial, but symptoms may become worse with time. The National Center for PTSD says that nearly eight percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, and women are twice as likely as men to develop the disorder.
While psychological trauma and PTSD are related, Marques tells Yahoo Health that there is a difference between the two: “Lots of people can experience a psychological trauma and may not develop PTSD. It has to be really bad to be PTSD.”
Of course, someone can experience a troubling event, like a bad car accident, and never experience trauma. The distinction, Marques says, is that trauma significantly interferes with a person’s life. For example, a victim of rape who never had a problem walking down a relatively safe street at dusk could suddenly find it impossible to leave the house after dark.
Baldwin first made headlines in 2007 when a voicemail her father had left for her leaked, in which he called her a “rude, thoughtless little pig” and a “s—t.” Alec Baldwin publicly apologized for his comments after the leak, and his daughter later told Page Six magazine that the actor often speaks like that because he’s “frustrated.”
While the exact cause of Baldwin’s trauma is unknown, “it’s well known that if a parent repeatedly engages in this type of behavior throughout a child’s lifetime, it can have some powerful psychological effects,” says psychologist Laura Brown, PhD, director of the Freemont Community Therapy Project. (Divorce and death of a parent can also contribute to childhood trauma, the symptoms of which can surface later in life.) And although Baldwin has said that it’s not uncommon for her father to communicate with her like he did in his infamous voicemail, Brown notes that we don’t have the full story.
Trauma is typically treated with one of two evidence-based methods: Cognitive processing therapy, which helps a person digest the trauma by changing the way they see the world, and prolonged exposure, which allows the person to relive the trauma and re-tell the story repeatedly in an effort to move past the trauma.
When someone seeks in-patient therapy for trauma, it’s usually after outpatient therapy did not reduce their symptoms or they can’t be safe from impulses to harm themselves or others, says Brown.
When should someone seek help? According to Brown, the best marker is if your life isn’t working in a “persistent fashion: “If you’re consistently miserable or frightened, have consistent negative feelings about yourself, have trouble trusting people or trust them too much, your relationships to food or sex feels like it’s not within your control…all of those are reasons to seek treatment.”
While psychological trauma can be debilitating, Marques says it’s “absolutely” possible for sufferers to move beyond it with the right treatment.
Her advice for those seeking treatment: Ask your care provider to explain their treatment first and the scientific evidence behind it—and only proceed if you feel comfortable with the answers.