How To Treat The Lifelong Effects Of Childhood Trauma

A common theme that runs through all psychological approaches is that what happens in childhood has a huge impact on our adult lives. When we’re young, we have not yet developed adequate coping mechanisms. Everything that occurs is therefore amplified and goes a long way to shaping how we react to things.

This is especially true for people who have suffered childhood trauma. Childhood trauma plays a major role in the development of unhealthy defenses. If you never process it, you will continue reacting to life in the way you did as a frightened child.

Fortunately, there are now many psychological treatments for childhood trauma, even decades after the event. Here is everything you need to know about treating childhood trauma.

What is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma refers to a frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity. This includes traumatic events that occur to their caregivers, or any person the child looks to for safety and stability.

Childhood trauma causes physical and emotional responses that may continue to affect the individual through adulthood.

What is an ACE?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are any events that had a lasting negative impact on a child. There are countless potential examples. Some of the most common are:

  • Bullying
  • Domestic violence
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Traumatic grief
  • Community violence
  • Natural disasters
  • Medical trauma
  • Refugee trauma
  • Much more

While most parents do their best to protect their children from all of the above, they do not have control over all circumstances. Thus, even those who grew up in loving, functional families, may have suffered from significant ACEs.

ACEs can include events which may not seem so significant to adults but which significantly impact a child’s state of mind. Mockery from a sibling or parent, being told to stop crying, strong criticism, and more can all shape a child’s coping mechanisms. When treating childhood trauma later in life, many therapists advise clients to begin with these types of ACEs before moving onto the more bluntly traumatic events. This way, the individual can start reshaping their defense mechanisms before exposure to the most traumatic events in their lives.

Why Does It Matter?

Many adults, those who have suffered childhood traumas and those who have not, believe that these events should be left in the past. After all, what’s the use of reliving the worst parts of one’s life?

Unfortunately, childhood trauma does not simply remain in the past. It continues to disrupt the individual’s life into adulthood. If it is never dealt with, it will cause problems for the individual indefinitely. These can be emotional or physical problems, and won’t disappear on their own.

The Lifelong Effects of Childhood Trauma

There are lifelong effects of childhood trauma that will continue to disrupt your life if you never adequately deal with the event.

Physical Effects

Childhood trauma can be physically damaging for a number of reasons. Firstly, a person’s stress response is largely physical. Your body will continue to carry the burden of the traumatic event. Physical stress contributes to all sorts of illnesses, including heart disease, certain cancers, and risk of stroke.

Furthermore, individuals find ways to avoid feeling the distressing emotions. These responses are often physically damaging, such as binge-eating, addiction, unsafe sex, and self-harm.

Those who have suffered from sexual abuse may also suffer from sexual dysfunction later in life.

Stress Responses

Unresolved childhood trauma also impacts how one reacts to stress later in life. Your immediate responses to stressors may be impaired. When in a fight-or-flight situation, you might respond in a way that puts you at more danger, rather than keeping yourself safe. Alternatively, your stress responses may be activated by everyday events, and not only those that put your life in danger.

Overactivation of one’s stress responses can lead to a number of problems. The physical responses are unhealthy when activated too regularly and can cause the aforementioned health issues.

They can also impair how you react to common situations. You may respond to work pressure, relationship difficulties, or even traffic jams with your fight-or-flight instincts. This can lead to recurrent work problems, self-destructive behavior, and inappropriate anger.

Traumatic Illnesses

While stress related to childhood trauma can lead to long-term physical issues, there are illnesses that can be triggered more directly by trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common among American adults. An estimated 5% of American adults are suffering from PTSD at any time. Childhood trauma is the cause of a significant number of these cases.

Childhood trauma leads to what is called “complex PTSD.” This kind of PTSD is caused by the child’s stress response developing at the same time as the trauma is ongoing. Rather than their stress response being impaired by a trauma, their stress response is entirely shaped by trauma.

Other mental illnesses can also be the result of childhood trauma. Depression is often a result of repeated numbing of overwhelming emotions. When an individual has not processed childhood trauma, the magnitude of these emotions is immense.

Childhood trauma also leads to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), anger problems, and abandonment issues.

Is It Worth “Cleaning Out The Closet?”

It is natural to ask whether “cleaning out the closet” is actually worth it. If your closet is overflowing with difficult emotions, opening it up is frightening, and doing so without help can be downright dangerous.

But, while cleaning out the closet might lead to difficulties, the consequences of leaving childhood trauma untouched are guaranteed. It will disrupt your life, in an overt or covert way. Your relationships will suffer, and your mental and physical health will deteriorate.

Seeing as there are numerous ways to deal with childhood trauma, and resources available if you know where to look, it is definitely worth cleaning out the closet.

How to Start Healing

How do you start healing childhood trauma? For someone who has lived for decades with the effects of ACEs, this question can seem overwhelming. Can scars that have been there for so long actually be treated?

The good news is, you are not alone. There are millions of others who have had to deal with childhood trauma as adults and come out the other side. They have uncovered a range of ways to start healing which have been empirically proven to work.

Talking It Out With Friends and Family

It’s possible that you experienced your childhood traumas alongside other family members. If so, it can be helpful to talk about the event with them. Hand-in-hand, you can tackle the memories and associated feelings. It helps to have someone with whom you can sound out your experience, who will validate your feelings and will understand why you are struggling.

If you can’t talk about your problems with your family, or if family members were the cause of your traumas, close friends can be the perfect support systems. Recall your experience to someone you love and who loves you, and who you know will not judge you. Simply telling someone your story will relieve a burden, and you’ll have opened up a space for you to express the feelings you’ve suppressed for so long.

This is not necessarily the space for advice. Some friends and family members will feel compelled to try “fix” your problems. Let them know that all you need is someone to talk to. That the only “fix” you need is someone who listens.

Support Groups

Unfortunately, many millions of people experience childhood trauma. The one up-side of this is that finding others who can relate is relatively easy. Support groups for victims of childhood trauma exist in nearly every city.

These support groups may be specific to those who have suffered a particular trauma. For example, if you came to the country as a young refugee, you may be able to find a group of people who experienced similar hardship in having to flee their home countries. Sexual abuse survivors can find groups of other survivors who will listen and understand exactly what they’ve gone through.

But you don’t have to find a group of people who have gone through exactly what you did. Support groups are made up of people who are trying to tell their stories and who also want to listen. Sharing with a group of understanding individuals provides an outlet to the feelings you’ve stored up for so long.

Support groups will be led by a counselor who has experience in guiding people through the process of sharing. It is a safe space, where you can express yourself without fear of judgment or negative consequences.

Talking to a Counselor

One of the most effective ways to face your childhood trauma is with the help of a skilled and experienced counselor. Therapy is the perfect space to confront frightening memories and feelings. A good counselor will guide you through the process, making sure you go at a pace that you can handle and being there to support you when you hit a roadblock or feel overwhelmed.

A counselor is a crucial part of the process, as they will help you understand exactly how your trauma has impacted and continues to impact your adult life. They will guide you in exploring the development of certain coping mechanisms and how these mechanisms are no longer useful. They will help you build new mechanisms that are effective and appropriate.

Counselors with experience in childhood trauma will have skills in their therapy toolbox to help each individual deal with their experiences appropriately. These include the unconditional acceptance person-centered therapy, the practical skills of CBT, and the healing effects of mindfulness.

They will be there as you heal, and will help you access any further resources necessary to dealing with the consequences of childhood trauma. They can refer you to a psychiatrist if they feel that medication will help, and will also give you guidance or references for addressing the physical impact that trauma has had on you.

How to Find a Counselor

Finding a therapist in your vicinity is not always easy. Where do you even start looking?

There are a number of ways to find a counselor who can help you. Asking your doctor for a referral, or looking through online directories, are common strategies.

ThriveTalk provides an easy and effective alternative. Online therapy is a new approach to the traditional medium of therapy. Online therapy refers to therapy performed remotely, through video and voice calling.

With online therapy, you can find the right counselor, rather than whoever happens to be closest. Instead of worrying about practicalities, focus on doing what’s best for your mental wellbeing.

What to Look For in a Counselor

It’s important to know what you want in a counselor.

You should feel comfortable sharing with the person. This is crucial, as if they intimidate you or you feel you can’t be open with them, you will struggle to heal. You should also feel a certain rapport with your counselor. They are there to help you heal, and it’s important that comes through in the way they relate to you.

It’s also helpful that they have experience dealing with childhood trauma. Any fully-registered counselor has done thousands of hours of therapy. Find out if they specialized in one field or another, and how that can help you.

Questions to Ask a Potential Counselor

Ask a potential counselor about their particular approach. Different therapists use different types of therapy to treat clients. All experienced counselors use techniques that have been empirically shown to work, but you may relate to one type more than another.

Ask about their experience, and how you can expect therapy to proceed. Give them a bit of information about yourself and see how you feel talking to them. Your relationship with them is foundational to the success of therapy, and how you feel with them can be more important than the content of their answers.

ThriveTalk makes finding the right counselor possible with just a few clicks. Our highly-skilled counselors are ready to help you confront your childhood trauma.

Set up a consultation today with ThriveTalk. You’ll be scheduling your first session before you know it!

author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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