There are many kinds of trauma, and any traumatic event can impact your emotional, physical, or mental well-being. Many adults don’t necessarily attribute the experiences in their childhood to their current realities. But research continues to highlight that childhood trauma can play a profound role in someone’s personality, coping style, and adult relationships.
Understanding The Definition of Trauma
Trauma refers to the overarching definition of real or perceived life-threatening danger. Traumatic incidents vary in severity, but they may include experiences related to:
- Physical assault or abuse.
- Sexual assault, rape, molestation, or attempts to sexually coerce someone.
- The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one.
- Witnessing severe violence or abuse happening to another person.
- Surviving a natural disaster or act of terrorism.
- Chronic neglect or abandonment.
- Being diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition.
- Surviving a severe event, like a massive car accident.
No two people react to trauma the same. How one copes, reacts, and internalizes the trauma can have lasting consequences on their overall functioning.
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How Common Is Trauma?
Trauma is highly prevalent. Research shows that approximately 70% of American adults have experienced at least one traumatic event during their lives. In behavioral health settings, this statistic climbs to over 90%.
Unfortunately, trauma can become chronic. For example, a child born in an abusive household may endure many years of physical and emotional abuse. At this point, it’s not a single trauma- it’s a persistent and complex issue.
How Do Most Children Cope With Trauma?
Children cope in many different ways. There are no right-or-wrong coping styles, although some coping styles yield better health outcomes than others.
Some children harness all their attention into school or athletics to avoid thinking about what has happened in their personal lives. Many times, they feel immense shame. They believe external accomplishments might admonish them of this painful feeling.
An overly mature child might please other adults, but this “wise-beyond-their-years” mindset may indicate a history of trauma. When a child is robbed of their innocence, they may learn that it’s up to them to protect themselves (and possibly their younger siblings). As a result, they start taking on various adult responsibilities.
Misbehaving children may be trying to assert their control or power because they don’t feel like they have it in their personal lives. Some children may become violent or destructive towards other people or things. This coping strategy helps them feel stronger, temporarily helping them avoid the pain they have internalized.
An overwhelming amount of children who abuse drugs or alcohol have histories of trauma. These drugs can numb the painful memories. Likewise, children in abusive homes may have grown up seeing substance use- their caretakers or other loved ones normalized it for them.
Many children want to preserve their innocence and protect the people who harmed them. For instance, they may still idolize their abusers. As a result, they will deny, lie, or rationalize any of the trauma that occurred. This coping strategy also aims to restore a sense of power and control.
Some children start acting significantly younger in response to trauma. For example, a school-aged child may begin wetting the bed all of a sudden. An independent teenager might cling to her parents. These responses are often subconscious, but they are a way to create a feeling of safety.
Some children learn to cut, burn, or otherwise harm themselves to externalize their internal pain. Self-harm can become compulsive- it often starts as an escape mechanism, but it can quickly transform into a catch-all for dealing with painful emotions.
Understanding How Childhood Trauma Affects Adult Development
As mentioned, children cope with trauma in numerous ways. Some children grow out of these strategies, particularly if they gain self-awareness of their patterns. But many other adults continue engaging in destructive thoughts and behaviors.
Poorer Physical Health Outcomes
Research shows that any exposure to childhood trauma can dramatically elevate someone’s likelihood of developing issues related to:
- High blood pressure.
- Heart disease.
- Premature death.
Experts believe that compounded toxic stress may cause permanent changes in the hormonal system and the brain. While we all benefit from the fight-or-flight response, it can cause far more harm than good when it’s always activated.
If someone blames themselves for the trauma they endured, their self-esteem may suffer dramatically. Even if they don’t blame themselves, they may be left wondering, why me? Why did this happen to me? What did I do wrong?
Over time, these unanswered questions can chip away at someone’s self-worth. It can be challenging for people to feel positive about themselves when such dark events have happened. This is especially true if others have invalidated or dismissed their experiences.
Trauma can skew someone’s entire worldview. What feels safe one moment may suddenly turn inside-out. A trusted loved one can transform into a cruel monster. Indeed, trauma can send a clear message, this world isn’t sfae.
Many people grow up adamantly believing this rigid message. As a result, they feel anxious in new situations. They are hypervigilant around people they don’t know. Most risks feel inappropriate- it’s much better to trust the tried-and-true.
Anxiety can manifest in many forms, including:
- Racing thoughts.
- Physical ailments (headaches, stomach problems, muscle tension).
- Panic attacks.
- Sleep problems related to insomnia.
- Appetite problems.
- Issues with work, school, or relationships.
Just like trauma can make someone feel more anxious, it can also heighten feelings of depression. After all, it can feel quite depressing to think about something awful that happened to you. It can feel sad realizing that people harmed you or didn’t protect you.
Depression isn’t always obvious. For some people, it looks like lying in bed and feeling a sense of despair. For others, it may appear as more irritation and feeling annoyed with everyone around you.
The common symptoms of depression include:
- Lack of energy.
- Poor sleep (oversleeping or insomnia).
- Appetite fluctuations (overeating or not eating at all).
- Suicidal thoughts.
- Feelings of extreme worthlessness or guilt.
- Feelings of hopelessness about the present or future.
- Apathy about the world around you.
- Loss of interest in usual hobbies, relationships, or schedule.
PTSD stands for posttraumatic stress disorder, and it refers to a cluster of symptoms that can emerge after a traumatic episode. These symptoms may develop as soon as a few weeks after the trauma or appear many years later.
Common PTSD symptoms include:
- Increased hypervigilance around others.
- Flashbacks (reexperiencing the trauma as if it’s occurring in real-time).
- Vivid nightmares.
- Self-destructive behavior.
- Extreme guilt or shame over the trauma.
- Continuously ruminating over the trauma.
- Loss of interest in usual hobbies, relationships, or activities.
Childhood trauma often impacts how safe and connected someone feels with other people. This is especially true in traumas related to violence, assault, or neglect.
Children need to feel supported and loved while growing up. If they don’t receive these basic needs, they may struggle to have any healthy sense of self-worth.
Therefore, it’s not uncommon for adults with childhood trauma to form relationships with people who may repeat the same traumatic issues. For example, they may partner with people who:
- Have severe mental health issues (that require immense caretaking).
- Struggle with substance use or other addictive problems.
- Have personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder.
- Are physically violent.
- Are emotionally unavailable, critical, cold, or cruel.
Impulsive or Reckless Behavior
Trauma may distort someone’s perception of reality and mortality. If they no longer care about the value of their life, the consequences associated with risky behaviors may not faze them as intensely. Some examples of these behaviors include:
- Substance use and/or mixing dangerous drugs together.
- Promiscuity and engaging in unprotected sex.
- Spending money or going into debt without considering future implications.
- Making rash decisions about serious matters like marriage, jobs, homes, etc.
Sometimes, this behavior represents a different issue, like bipolar disorder, but it can also stem from trauma. Because life hasn’t felt fair or just, it’s hard to foresee the need to plan a realistic future.
Failure To Launch
Trauma can stunt one’s ability to launch successfully into adulthood. Many people walk around in adult bodies, but they still very much feel like young children. For example, they may rely on other people to do their basic responsibilities. Other examples of failure to launch include:
- Avoiding adult tasks like making appointments or running errands.
- Staying unemployed or underemployed despite being able to work.
- Bouncing in and out of school (but not completing any degree).
- Struggling to commit to real relationships or friendships.
- Being unreliable or disloyal to other people.
- Acting childish or immature, especially in serious settings.
When confronted about this behavior, some people will deny it. Others may become angry or defensive. And some may agree, but they will insist they don’t really know how to change their ways.
Watch the MedCircle original series Failure to Launch: Practical Ways to Empower Young Adults featuring triple board certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist Dr. Judy Ho.
Just like children may deny their traumas, adults also suppress, avoid, or deny their pasts. Many times, this isn’t intentional. It’s a subconscious defense mechanism aimed to protect them.
Denial can sound like justification (my parents did the best they could! Everyone got beat back then). It can also sound like personalization (I probably deserved it. I was always antagonizing him. No wonder he snapped). Finally, it can also sound like minimization (It wasn’t really that bad. Other people have it so much worse than I do).
How Do You Treat Trauma?
Trauma is complex, and the symptoms can be challenging to untangle, but treatment is available. Today, there are numerous options to consider if you’re struggling.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is an evidence-based therapy that focuses on changing negative thoughts and replacing them with more realistic, adaptive ones. CBT also focuses on practicing more effective coping skills, particularly when faced with difficult feelings.
CBT includes many components. You may be completing thought records, engaging in mindfulness exercises, learning about cognitive distortions, and setting goals for combating anxiety or trauma.
Psychodynamic therapy helps you explore how your past relationships and experiences are affecting your current self. Through this exploration, you may discover important patterns about yourself. You will also learn how your relationships with your caretakers may be unfolding themselves in real-time.
Psychodynamic may include interventions related to free association (saying whatever is on your mind), transference (exploring how you feel about your therapist), dreamwork, and learning about your defense mechanisms.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is a fairly new psychotherapy designed specifically for trauma treatment. This therapy entails sharing the details of the trauma in a way that eventually allows you to feel desensitized to it.
In sharing your story, the therapist will engage you in a series of bilateral stimulations. This strategy can help reduce your emotional intensity. Over time, the trauma has less of an impact on you.
There are many support groups available for people who have endured traumas. The types of groups vary, but all of them aim to provide support, lack of judgment, and compassion to members. Feeling understood and connected to other people can facilitate a dramatic effect in your healing.
Some people benefit from taking medication for their trauma symptoms. Usually, this approach is recommended only in conjunction with other methods, like psychotherapy. You need to meet with your primary care physician or psychiatrist to obtain a prescription.
Common medications for trauma include:
- Antidepressants like Zoloft, Prozac, Paxil, or Lexapro.
- Antipsychotics like Abilify, Zyprexa, or Seroquel.
- Benzodiazepines like Xanax, Klonopin, or Librium (short-term use only).
Childhood trauma can undoubtedly impact one’s emotional and physical development. If you have experienced trauma- and you’re struggling with residual symptoms- it’s important to reach out for help.
You don’t have to suffer in silence. Treatment can give you a new perspective and meaning on your life and well-being.