What You Can Do When Childhood Trauma Is Holding You Back
By: Sarah Fader
Updated December 21, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Melinda Santa
Many people have not had ideal childhoods and have experienced traumatic events in their early life. If you've experienced childhood trauma or sexual abuse, you are not alone. Your psychological trauma is real, and your feelings are valid. There are helpful resources and tools for you to learn how to cope with your childhood trauma, and move forward toward a fulfilling and productive life.
What Happens When You Don't Heal from Childhood Trauma?
According to the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, 26% of children in the United States will either witness or be involved in a traumatic event or sexual abuse before they turn four-years-old. Many of us have experienced traumatic events as children that led to us experiencing long-term traumatic stress as adults. When children experience physical abuse and neglect, those situations are not only challenging but traumatic, it can be excruciating and hard to cope.
It's not easy to face the pain you experienced as a result of childhood trauma or sexual abuse, but it's necessary. If you've been avoiding your painful childhood memories, you may be experiencing nightmares or flashbacks as a result of unresolved traumatic stress. You might be having panic attacks as a result of your childhood trauma. You may be prone to episodes of depression because you can't seem to let go of the traumatic events that happened to you as a child.
You may be suffering from the effects of traumatic stress if memories of physical or sexual abuse or other childhood trauma types starts interfering with your everyday functioning; that's when you need to confront these issues. You may notice that you're lashing out at people in interpersonal relationships as a result of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and you don't know why. As you dig deeper, you discover that the wounds from childhood are still affecting you, and you're rehashing your psychological trauma as an adult.
Your childhood trauma wounds won't begin to heal until you can openly address the associated medical trauma related to unresolved issues with childhood physical or sexual abuse. You may feel shame or guilt because of what happened to you as a survivor of childhood domestic violence. These are natural feelings to have, but they won't help you get past the events.
For you to start healing from the wounds of childhood, you need to face your past and mitigate the effects of child traumatic stress. You don't have to do this alone there is help available at your local department of health via their mental health services division that manages responsible for behavioral health.
One of the best ways to start addressing psychological trauma from childhood is by going to therapy. When you work with a trauma specialist who understands the essence of positive psychology, whether that's online or in your local area (face to face meeting), you have a person who cares about what you've experienced in your childhood and throughout your life. You can go with online therapy, if that's what with make you feel comfortable. Online therapists are experienced in counseling people who have experienced many types of childhood trauma. They want you to heal. Therapists provide trauma-informed care for recovering victims of child abuse and neglect. When you visit a therapist they will conduct a trauma assessment to determine if you're suffering from the effects of mental health related issues like post-traumatic stress disorder. Your therapist will discuss different options for therapy including options like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that focus on healing by learning to recognize and eliminate damaging behaviors that may possibly stem from your childhood trauma.
BetterHelp Wants You to Heal from Your Past
At BetterHelp, the licensed online counselors have worked with people who have experienced childhood trauma and helped them work through their painful memories by providing trauma-informed care. After talking through the wounds of childhood abuse, clients have found it easier to live fulfilling lives.
If you prefer traditional, face-to-face therapy, speaking with a licensed mental health professional is an effective method for recovering from childhood trauma, in order to prevent later issues with substance abuse and mental health.
Unhealed psychological trauma can often turn into complex trauma without the benefit of mental health services intervention. In some cases, children and adolescents have experienced psychological trauma by witnessing a loved one's abuse. Even as a witness children are still susceptible to the effects of traumatic stress due to the social-emotional effects of vicarious abuse. Vicarious abuse occurs when a child can suffer similar effects as the victim by witnessing sexual abuse, physical abuse, and familial substance abuse. Children who grew up witnessing community violence like gang violence, violence between family members, or other group violence may exhibit the same symptoms of childhood abuse and neglect as if they had experienced the abuse directly.
According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress, early intervention is the key to protecting child welfare and to prevent instances of witnessing partner violence or sexual assault from affecting children later in life. A treatment assessment will likely indicate that treatment for vicarious trauma is necessary to mitigate the PTSD symptom of anxiety.
People who witness or experience high-levels of psychological trauma as children are prone to develop anxiety related disorders as adults.
In relation to the fight or flight approach. You didn't choose what happened to you, but you no longer have to run from the pain. When you work with a counselor at BetterHelp, you are making a conscious decision to get help with your traumatic childhood and relief. You can talk about how your trauma is hurting you and stop letting it hold you back.
You might not realize how detrimental your traumatic childhood is until you enter online therapy. But once you do, your therapist can support you in doing the emotional work to heal. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors.
"Leann is amazing. She really takes her time in first laying down some ground rules and expectations. She is very easy to speak with and I feel she really is listening to everything I say. Our messages can get very lengthy, but she doesn't miss a detail. She makes me feel like she's an old friend. She makes me feel like she really cares. I appreciate that."
“I’ve been holding in a lot of trauma that trails back all the way to my childhood. I was matched to Miranda and she has just been wonderful. She seems to genuinely care about me and would chat with me in between scheduled sessions just to make sure I’m ok. I haven’t had someone that I can be completely open with and it is so refreshing to not have to hide my past or present traumas. I think only Miranda knows the real me. It’s also nice to know that someone randomly thinks of you and messages you to let you know that they’re thinking of you.”
Start by Understanding Childhood Trauma
There's a difference between having a bad childhood memory and experiencing psychological trauma. If you've witnessed partner violence, sexual assault, or other types of childhood trauma, completing a trauma assessment with trauma and mental health professional can give you an idea of how and where to start healing.
Not all negative experiences are traumatic. If you can understand what childhood trauma is, you may find out why you don't feel good and why you behave the way you do now. If you realize that you have none of the symptoms nor the background of real childhood trauma, understanding what it is can make you a more compassionate person.
Either way, the first step to understanding childhood trauma is to learn the definition. Learning about your family's past can also provide insight into understanding one's trauma.
What Is Considered Childhood Trauma?
To be traumatic, an event not only has to be negative, but it also has to be painful. When children have experienced childhood trauma generally develop issues later in life as a result if left untreated. Trauma is so impactful that it is beyond your ability to cope in healthy ways. Continuing education and support is critical to healing all trauma types.
While traumas of all kinds fit this description, the most harmful are the traumas that are dealt out intentionally in interpersonal relationships. Childhood traumas include:
- Physical abuse- When someone in authority over you hurts you in any tangible way, including cuts, bruises, scratches, burns, broken bones, or loss of consciousness. Physical injury is often the result of physical abuse, sexual abuse often leaves deep emotional scars when this type of, abuse occurs.
- Emotional abuse- When the abuser intentionally causes injury to your dignity or psychological integrity. Some examples are threats, scapegoating, confining you to a closet or tying you to a chair, shaming, or forcing you to cause yourself pain.
- Emotional neglect- If your abuser failed to nurture you or give you the affection you need and your memories of childhood may revolve around feeling left out, or not having your basic needs met. In cases of emotional neglect, child feels devalued and unloved which can have lasting effects through adulthood.
- Sexual abuse- Childhood sexual assault has occurred if you were subjected to unwanted sexual touching or activity by a caregiver or other adult. Sexual assault usually happens with someone known or close to the family. (Children who have witnessed sexual abuse can also suffer vicarious trauma as a result.)
- Physical neglect- If your caregiver failed to provide you with the physical resources you needed when you were growing up, this is considered physical neglect. Physical neglect can be unintentional as a side effect of partner violence. Children who witnessed close siblings, relatives, or friends being deprived of critical day-to-day needs such as food, clothing, or shelter may feel helpless and suffer vicarious trauma as a result.
- Natural Disasters- Living through a natural disaster such as a fire, a flood, a tornado or hurricane, or even a drought can affect a child's trauma and mental health. However, if the adults in charge of you handled it well, the traumatic effects of it would be minimized.
- Loss of Caregiver- When a child loses their parent or another caregiver, the effects can be devastating. (This is especially true if they've ended up in foster care as a result.) Even the youngest children feel the impact, though some adults assume they're too young to understand what has happened. While it's true they may not understand, it is this very inability to understand that causes them more trauma and distress.
Trauma does not discriminate and can happen to anyone. People can heal from childhood trauma by attending therapy and follow strict practice guidelines and treatment guidelines to see lasting results.
How Childhood Trauma Affects Your Brain
Childhood trauma may leave a mark on your body as well as your mind. When the trauma is severe and prolonged, it also affects the structure of the child's brain. During childhood, your brain is busy growing and developing. When trauma disrupts this process, the results can be profoundly damaging. Early childhood trauma can limit early brain development that can have life-long lasting effects on the child regardless of the trauma types that he or she has experienced.
Blocked Neural Pathways
Neurons make up the networks in the brain that link together to regulate your brain function. The earlier the childhood trauma happened, the more the brain's development is altered. The purpose of brain development is to enhance your ability to survive.
However, when you grow up in a traumatizing environment, your brain develops in a way to help you survive in that environment. The neural pathways that work in that dysfunctional environment become overdeveloped, while other pathways aren't as well-developed as they would generally be. Early childhood trauma disrupts the proper formation of these pathways, while trauma that happens later in life changes the way the pathways are refined.
Since the traumatizing environment is so different from most of the situations you'll face later in life; you may have problems adapting to those new situations. Some people can't cope outside of such an environment, so they end up seeking the same type of dysfunctional relationships that caused the trauma.
Effects of Childhood Trauma on Adults
The effects of childhood trauma on adults can be severe and far-reaching. Trauma in childhood can change your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and may negatively impact your physical health long after the trauma is over. And this may require special attention from a trauma specialist who has sound knowledge in positive psychology and childhood trauma.
1. Damage to the Self
One of the earliest tasks of childhood development is forming a healthy self-concept. Throughout your life, you think and behave about the self-concept you've established. When you experience childhood trauma, especially prolonged trauma, your self-concept is malformed and altered. Developing a more positive outlook and self-esteem can assist in altering your view of self. Learning positive affirmations as well as learning to love yourself through it all is important, and (along with other similar methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy) can actually alter your brain in a positive way.
2. Thinking of Yourself as a Victim
If you suffered childhood trauma due to a natural disaster or the loss of a parent or caregiver, it was probably hard for you to understand why that trauma happened to you. As a child, you may have assumed that God or the universe was against you. You may have falsely learned that events that happened to you were some form of cosmic punishment.
Even more, if you were abused or neglected, you may have seen yourself only regarding that abuse or neglect. Your identity was formed in that victim role, and you may have a tough time thinking yourself as someone who has power over their own life.
3. Passive-Aggressive Behavior
As a survivor of childhood trauma, you may have a lot of anger that you don't know how to handle. Typically, people with childhood trauma express their anger in passive-aggressive ways. They don't want to openly show their anger because they fear what would happen if they did. Instead, as a result of their childhood trauma, they strike out with sarcasm that they can later call a joke, or with intentional mistakes, they can then claim were innocent.
4. Self-Abandonment (Being Passive)
One of the most harmful effects of childhood trauma is the total abandonment of the self. Rather than having an opinion, expressing a need, or telling people what they want, they hide these things in an attempt to keep the peace. Later, passivity becomes a long-standing pattern as a result of their trauma. You abandon yourself and accept whatever is given to you by the people in your life.
Effects on Physical and Mental Health
Another way to look at the impact of childhood trauma on adults is the types of physical and mental problems people who have had those experiences tend to develop.
- Attachment DisordersChildren traumatized between the ages of 6 months and three years are prone to having trouble forming healthy attachments to others. Psychologists refer to the resulting disorder as reactive attachment disorder (RAD). RAD affects your ability to create adequate social relationships and affects your mood and behavior. You may have trouble trusting anyone as a result of your childhood trauma.
- Poor Physical HealthWhen people have been traumatized early in life, they often have health problems later on that can be traced to the traumatizing events.
- Poor Emotional RegulationEmotional regulation means the ability to recognize, name, and deal with feelings. After experiencing childhood trauma, you may have a hard time knowing, understanding, and managing your emotions.
- The Altered States of ConsciousnessWhen childhood trauma happens, mainly if it goes on for a long time, children may easily fall into a dissociative state. Because they are children, people may not recognize these states as altered states of consciousness. Years later, these people may return to altered states of consciousness during stressful times.
- Lowered Cognitive AbilityWhen children are systematically abused or neglected, they may develop cognitive problems. Some examples are poor verbal skills, memory problems, problems focusing, or concentration, unable to create adequate cognitive skills or specific learning disabilities.
- Inconsistent Self-ConceptPeople who suffered childhood trauma may have an inconsistent self-concept. They don't know how to interpret the thoughts and feelings they have about themselves or distinguish their thoughts and feelings from what others say about them as a result of their trauma. They may see themselves as competent with one group of people but utterly incompetent with others.
- Poor Behavioral ControlPeople who experience childhood trauma may become impulsive adults. They have a hard time controlling their behavior and tend to do what they feel at the present moment without thinking of the consequences they'll face later on as a result of their trauma.
Find out If You Suffered Childhood Trauma
If you're like most people, you know you had some unpleasant experiences in your childhood. Everybody does. The question is: Were my experiences truly traumatic? Another question you need the answer to is: Did I suffer traumas I don't remember now? Once you answer these questions for yourself, you can move on to healing childhood trauma, move forward from your trauma, and building a life you can enjoy. Do you notice any of the following symptoms in yourself? Survivors of childhood trauma may exhibit both physical and emotional symptoms. Physical symptoms include:
- Not making eye contact
- A chronic feeling of exhaustion
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Shallow breathing
- Chronic back pain
- Feeling unable to move or having little ability to sit still
- Bodily numbness
- Poor health
- Fainting or dizziness
- Dry mouth
Emotional symptoms of having had childhood trauma include:
- Easily startled
- Trust issues
- Getting into the same type of relationship as the traumatizing one
- Changing yourself to suit your environment
- Being afraid people won't like you or will reject you
- Becoming dependent on others
- Feeling of powerlessness
- Feeling helpless and hopeless
- Taking too much or too little control
- Feeling inadequate
- Avoiding failure at the cost of abandoning your aspirations
Examine Your Childhood Memories
You may be able to remember things that happened to you as a child that you now know were abuse, neglect, or some other form of a traumatic event. It may help to try journaling as a way to get in touch with your childhood experiences and the feelings that accompanied them at the time to explore if these events did result in childhood trauma for you. If you choose to start therapy, later on, these notes can help you get started with healing your childhood trauma.
Talk to Relatives
Adults who have suffered trauma as children may not remember accurate details of the traumatizing events or their childhood trauma. Or, they might have forgotten what happened altogether. If your past seems like a big question mark and you're unsure if you experienced childhood trauma, talk to relatives you trust who can help by filling in the parts you don't remember. Although everyone has their perspective, a relative may be able to fill in the details you need to identify and understand the trauma.
Take a Trauma Assessment
The Childhood Trauma Questionnaire is a tool that mental health professionals use to identify the types and severity of child abuse and neglect. The questionnaire has been studied thoroughly in scientific research projects and has proven highly effective. It's a self-report test, meaning that you answer questions about yourself, rating each response from "Never True" to "Very Often True."
ACES Study (Adverse Childhood Experiences). If you want to take a test at home, consider the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) Test. Know your ACE score here and learn what it does and doesn't mean.
Talk to a Counselor
If your exploration reveals signs, symptoms, or details of childhood trauma, a counselor can help you find out if you did suffer a childhood trauma. Furthermore, they can help you deal with the feelings you have about it and teach you ways to overcome its effects on your life. Licensed counselors at BetterHelp.com can provide online therapy to help you evaluate and overcome childhood trauma.
A trauma specialist such as a therapist can listen to your story, help you discover how childhood trauma still affects you, and teach you new ways to think about what happened. You can also get help in support groups and by developing healthy relationships with family and friends. They can assist your effort in healing from trauma:
In Support Groups
Many people start trying to address childhood traumas in support groups. Being with people who have been through similar things can help you feel comfortable and healthier. If others in the group have already dealt with the problems caused by their childhood trauma, they may provide information and resources to help you continue your journey to healing from trauma.
While support groups can be helpful, individual therapy gives you the chance to examine the specific trauma you experienced and learn to overcome it in ways that are best suited to you, whether that be childhood trauma or another type of trauma. Another reason to pursue a course of therapy for childhood trauma is that it allows you to interact with a professional who has the education, training, and experience that will help you most.
Healthy Relationships with Family and Friends
As your understanding grows and you begin to process your childhood trauma, cope with, and move away from the problems that have held you back as a result of your childhood trauma, you can learn to have healthier relationships with those close to you. Your therapist can support you as you learn better ways to interact with the people you want in your life. They can teach you to communicate more openly, directly, and effectively.
They can also teach you some stress management techniques that can make these encounters more comfortable for you. Then, with healthy relationships in place, you may have a stronger support system than ever before.
Learn How to Move Beyond the Trauma
Moving beyond the effects of childhood trauma may mean that you have to change both your thoughts and behaviors. As you do, your feelings may change as well. Through all these changes, you may feel vulnerable in a way you haven't since you were a child. However, with the support of a mental health professional, you can make the changes that can improve your life dramatically.
If you know or suspect you suffered trauma during your childhood, get help as soon as possible. Counselors are available at BetterHelp.com, and you can sign up for online counseling in just a few minutes. The sooner you get the help you need, the sooner you can begin to heal and start the journey toward the healthy, happy life you deserve.
According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress, exposure to acute stress for extended periods of time can lead to a common PTSD symptom of exhaustion coupled with anxiety. Acute stress disorder is a common ailment for many people in the United States as they deal with the anticipation of new stressful events, while still in the process of recovering from recent stressful events that occurred.
It's critical that mental health professionals and abuse victims work together to comply with stringent mental health practice guidelines imparted by the mental health services administration. In an effort to support abuse prevention and education. Clients who are serious about healing childhood trauma should follow mental health treatment guidelines to increase the chances of success.
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