If you are someone who has experienced trauma during childhood, you are not alone. What you may or may not know is that the trauma you experienced in childhood can have very real effects on your well-being as an adult.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that early trauma can create lasting changes in a developing brain. This means that the way you respond to stress as an adult can be altered due to the traumatic experiences you endured as a child. This is why it becomes increasingly important in adulthood to identify how your childhood trauma may be impacting your daily life and to learn ways to navigate through the pain and find healing.
Before we talk about symptoms of trauma, let’s take a closer look at what we mean by trauma.
What is Trauma?
In general, psychological trauma is defined as a lasting emotional response to an event that a person finds deeply distressing. Individual reactions to events can vary, so there are no strict rules about what constitutes trauma for any given person. Two people can even go through the exact same distressing event and be impacted differently. Some people may have symptoms that last a few weeks and others may have long-term effects.
After experiencing a traumatic event, it is normal to feel a lot of different emotions and physical sensations. You may feel overwhelmed, shocked, or even numb. Common physical symptoms include feeling easily startled, having digestive issues, and even developing pain in the body.
Childhood trauma is extremely complicated because it’s not always possible to recall how you felt or reacted when you were exposed to a traumatic event. It’s also pretty common for people to dismiss things that happened to them in childhood as “not a big deal”. Sure, children are resilient, but they aren’t invincible. If something in your life caused you a great deal of pain, it’s always worth exploring.
Types of Childhood Trauma
When we think of trauma we usually imagine war zones, natural disasters, or horrendous accidents. These are all traumatic experiences but they only cover a fraction of the types of trauma that can cause long-lasting negative effects.
There are many types of trauma, including:
- Chronic Trauma: Repeated and prolonged exposure to events and situations that are distressing. Includes experiences such as child abuse, neglect, bullying, and having a parent with substance abuse issues.
- Acute Trauma: A single stressful or dangerous event such as a fire, accident, or assault.
- Complex Trauma: Exposure to multiple and/or prolonged traumatic events that are detrimental to healthy development. Some examples include sexual abuse, war, community violence, or home instability.
The important defining feature of individual trauma is whether it has caused you a great deal of distress. Even when you feel like you’ve “put things behind you”, unresolved trauma can come back to haunt you at any point in your adult life.
Trauma is complex and the way it impacts a person can depend on a lot of things such as personality, support system, temperament, and previous exposure to trauma.
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Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adulthood
When you experience traumatic events as a child it puts you in a heightened state of stress. This causes your body to release a flurry of stress hormones that can impact the way your brain develops. Enduring an increased stress response during these critical years of development can significantly alter a person’s emotional, mental, and physical health into adulthood.
If you have endured childhood trauma you may find some of the following symptoms relatable:
- Disassociation: After exposure to trauma we sometimes develop coping mechnisms like disassociation in order to cope. You may have periods of feeling disconnected from your thoughts, memories, and surroundings. It can be a struggle to feel attached to the world around you and almost like life is sailing on by as you watch from a distance.
- Anxiety: An increased state of stress during development can lead to a heightened stress response later in life. This means that your early trauma may cause you to feel unhinged more easily in stressful situations. You may also go on to develop anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder.
- Depression: It is common for people who have experienced trauma to struggle with feelings of sadness or apathy. Research has found that people who experienced childhood trauma are also more likely to experience chronic major depression.
- Substance Abuse/Addiction: The feelings associated with early trauma can be incredibly difficult to deal with. It is common for trauma survivors to turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to numb the pain and self-medicate.
- Self-esteem: Exposure to early trauma can wreak havoc on your self-esteem. Experiencing events that disrupt the development of a healthy sense of self can lead to self-harm, negative self-talk, or self-sabotaging behaviour. It can feel nearly impossible to give yourself the loving self-acceptance you deserve.
- Interpersonal Relationships: It is common for trauma to make it more difficult to connect with others emotionally. It becomes harder to trust others and unresolved trauma may leave you feeling as if you have to protect yourself. This discomfort with vulnerability as well as other symptoms of trauma can make it difficult to connect with others and build an effective support system.
Many people who experience trauma will go on to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can severely impede day-to-day functioning. PTSD can lead to feelings of revisiting or reliving the trauma, flashbacks, and exaggerated stress response.
The truth about trauma is that for some people it doesn’t just “go away” and it can significantly impair your well-being throughout your life if you don’t seek help. Learning to recognize the symptoms of trauma is a vital step in beginning the healing process. It can be hard to concede that there is something wrong, but this is the only way you can begin your path to healing.
How to Heal Your Childhood Trauma
Unresolved childhood trauma is like having a deranged driver at the steering wheel of your life. Learning how to heal your trauma isn’t about making it disappear, it’s about taking back that steering wheel.
How you approach your path toward healing may look different at various stages of your life. The important thing is to continue working toward resolving the trauma that holds you back from living your best life.
Here are some proven ways you can work through your trauma and live the healthy life you deserve:
- Therapy: Avoidance is one of the most common coping mechanisms for trauma survivors. This can make it extremely difficult to see a therapist because they’ll want to work through the very thing you are trying to avoid. It is important for you to recognize that therapy works and avoidance doesn’t. In fact, therapy is the gold standard when it comes to resolving childhood trauma. Therapy creates a safe space for you to share your experiences. Find a therapist who specializes in therapies like EMDR or Lifespan Integration. Your therapist will help you navigate the pain you have experienced and rebuild your coping and defence mechanisms to help you live a healthier and happier life. You can’t erase what happened to you, but, with therapy, you can learn to integrate your experiences, reduce your symptoms, and build a healthier relationship with yourself and others.
- Medication: If your daily symptoms from childhood trauma are significantly impeding your life, you may want to consider medication. Medications, such as antidepressants, can make symptoms more manageable. Medication can also make it less overwhelming to work through your trauma in therapy. Talk to your doctor if you think medication is a good path for you.
- Learn self-regulation and stress-reduction techniques: Childhood trauma can make it difficult to regulate your emotions in adulthood. Learning self-soothing and emotional regulation techniques can be extremely helpful for managing difficult symptoms. Try grounding techniques, breathing exercises, yoga, and journaling. You can also have a little fun with stress reduction by making a point to schedule self-care time where you enjoy a stress-reducing activity like a hot bath or a nature walk.
- Examine your relationships: Building an effective support system is important for finding healing. Whenever possible, limit contact or distance yourself from people in your life who exacerbate your symptoms. You should also seek out support from people you trust. If you don’t have anyone in your personal life, you can try joining a support group or group therapy.
- Learn Self-Love: Being kind and gentle with yourself is vital in your path to healing. You can learn techniques such as positive affirmations which have been proven to improve confidence and sense of self-worth. Building an inner dialogue that is gentle, patient, accepting, and loving as you work through your problems will nurture your inner child and help you find peace.
- Stay Honest With Yourself: Feeling vulnerable may be the most uncomfortable feeling after spending a lifetime building those granite walls around your heart. It is important that you honestly assess how your symptoms are impacting your life and reach out for help when needed. You have to remember that a lot of the defence mechanisms you have were built in childhood by a developing and traumatized brain, so they may not be the most healthy ways of coping.
Living with the effects of childhood trauma can sometimes feel exhausting and overwhelming, but know that you are not alone. The human mind is an incredible thing and nobody is ever a lost cause. Although initially, it may take a lot of work and pain to find healing in your trauma, as you learn techniques for better coping, you’ll gain the confidence you need to take the wheel back and regain control of your life.
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