Identifying and Treating Childhood Trauma in Adults

Phi Atratus
  • Apr 20, 2022
  • 5 min read
shadows of child and adult on jetty

To understand trauma correctly, we must first realize that trauma is not what happened to us but how we feel about what happened to us. 

Trauma can be defined as an emotional response to a terrible event.

When we hear trauma, we often think of a catastrophe, a disaster, or a significant adverse life event. But that's not always the case. Emotional abuse, neglect, crushed boundaries, bullying – these can all cause trauma.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) doesn't only affect veterans; it can also be born out of other, less obvious distressing life situations.

It's important to emphasize that much of our trauma derives from childhood and is closely tied to the problems we experience in adulthood.

Victims of childhood trauma often don't realize they're experiencing trauma as it happens. Sometimes they see it only when their coping mechanisms are causing significant problems in their life or no longer work. 

More than 60% of children experience trauma before the age of 16. Adverse events during childhood are a predictor for developing psychopathologies in adult life – mental disorders like anxiety, depression, PTSD, or addiction are fairly common.

In fact, experiencing trauma more than once during one’s lifetime is usually the norm. 

Because trauma is so frequent nowadays, it's not surprising that it can significantly impact all aspects of life and society at large. Even if it feels like an isolating experience, most people live with trauma. 

It's undoubtedly a mass epidemic, so the need for a deep conversation is a must – now more than ever. 

Trauma leads people to develop dysfunctional coping mechanisms to deal with emotional pain. Even anxiety has an adaptive role: it helps us cope with painful life situations.

Unfortunately, these mechanisms become problematic over time. 

We need better ways to cope. The good news is that therapy can help heal childhood trauma in adults, and there's enough evidence to prove that! 

What Is a Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma can look different for everyone. Anything can traumatize us because we are the only ones with a say in it.

Trauma can happen in families as well as outside of them. Trauma can be relational – at the hands of our primary caretakers or our peers, or environmental – exacerbated by poverty and other societal dysfunctions.

The type of trauma that someone experiences also depends on their gender. Women experience sexual abuse more often, while men experience physical abuse. 

Trauma is normally an event that happens to you, but it can also be the absence of something, such as a lack of parental warmth or unconditional acceptance.

Examples of childhood trauma include:

These could be traumatic experiences in and of themselves or risk factors for experiencing other traumatic events. Furthermore, repeated trauma is common, raising the risk of developing mental disorders like PTSD. 

The most common mental illnesses related to trauma are:

Mental illnesses are a response to trauma. To heal, you have to dig deep and get to the root of your childhood trauma.

Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults

Symptoms of childhood trauma in adults may not always be so evident at first glance. Often, people don't know that they've been victims of abuse or that they suffer from trauma. They only get to the bottom of it when it affects them later in life.

There are also frequent situations when people feel dependent on or close to their abusers. They can experience what is called “trauma bonding.”

Children who have dealt with trauma can have separation anxiety, low appetite, or act violently. As they grow into full-fledged adults, their reactions to trauma change, and their problems become more complex. 

The most prominent or common reaction to trauma in adult life is developing a mental disorder. These are often accompanied by self-harm, suicidal behavior or ideation, feelings of disconnection, isolation, dissociation, or poor impulse control.

Commonly experienced emotions include guilt, anger, shame, anxiety, sadness, and hopelessness. Physical symptoms like chronic fatigue, insomnia, or pain are also present.

Not all symptoms of trauma are so obvious, though. Sometimes you have to look for signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults. Those include:

  • People-pleasing
  • Caring about what others think of them
  • Feeling responsible for others
  • Difficulty being assertive
  • Chronic health issues
  • Generally distrusting others
  • Making sacrifices and compromises just keep the peace
  • Getting triggered by sounds, sights, or movements
  • Wanting to prove their worth 
  • Becoming a workaholic

How to Heal From Childhood Trauma With Therapy

Children experiencing trauma would benefit significantly from receiving therapy, ideally early on. The more time passes, the more complicated and repressed the traumatic event becomes.

Psychotherapy can help people experiencing trauma, but it's usually a long-term process that you should treat with care and patience.

A therapist will first teach you to stay with your pain, accept your childhood trauma, and make space for it in your life. Talking about your childhood trauma and opening those wounds up can be painful, but it's the only way to heal. As they say, the only way out is through.

The next step is learning techniques to manage your painful emotions and acknowledging how the traumatic event impacts your life. The therapist will help you notice some of your dysfunctional thinking patterns (sometimes through the use of worksheets) and make sense of them.

The therapeutic process for trauma victims is stressful but eye-opening. However, the growth that comes from it is well worth the effort. Therapy for childhood trauma can take many forms:

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)

CPT is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy focused on symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It involves psychoeducation, processing the traumatic event, and learning to cope with it.

CPT involves looking deep into your thoughts about the traumatic experience and learning to accept it. This treatment option can help reduce feelings of guilt or shame related to your childhood trauma.

It essentially focuses on changing maladaptive beliefs developed after the traumatic event – about yourself, others, and the world.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a therapeutic approach that has been shown to be effective even in complex childhood trauma.

It facilitates the way you process emotionally stressful traumatic experiences without lengthy exposure.

EMDR is not so much focused on the actual trauma. The aim is to pay attention to something else (external stimuli) while recalling the trauma – like remembering the event while focusing on other activities, like bilateral eye movements or hand tapping. 

That way, you replace the thoughts and emotions when experiencing the trauma with new ones.

Prolonged exposure (PE)

PE therapy for adults incorporates breathing techniques and recounting the traumatic event. Processing the traumatic event is done through exposure techniques – both in real life and in your imagination.

An essential step in PE is to list all your fears and confront them step-by-step. The therapist will teach you how to do that skillfully. 

Narrative exposure therapy (NET)

NET is a short-term technique developed for victims of multiple traumatic events (like war, violence, or abuse) and complex PTSD. It was generally used in treating refugees. 

The idea behind this therapeutic approach is to write a detailed narrative that includes the context and feelings you experienced at that moment so that you can put it in perspective and reflect on it. The final aim is to process the traumatic event and build a clear image of the whole experience.

Growing Out of Your Trauma

By definition, trauma is how you respond to profoundly adverse events. But the way you respond is often not a choice but rather a survival mechanism.

Trauma is nuanced, and people experience it differently. But not all people who live a traumatic event develop PTSD.

It's not far-fetched to say that our entire culture is traumatized. We don't know how to deal with our pain and tend to hide our emotional wounds, even from ourselves. 

Our systems are neglectful of people and only scarcely address this issue; they're not discussing the more profound implications of childhood trauma. 

Even if there are a lot of programs out there that aim to assist traumatized children, that help doesn't reach enough people to make a difference.

We are isolated in our struggles, and most of the time, it feels like they're just our own. But the critical thing to realize is that you are not alone. 

We can stand together if we talk openly about our changes. There's so much hope on the other side; we just have to get there to see it.

You, too, can receive treatment through our online therapy platform. DoMental helps you find the right professional for you while also offering the possibility of talking to your therapist on a daily basis. And the best part is that you can choose to do online therapy anonymously.

Online therapy can help smooth the process of healing, and it can be as efficient as regular face-to-face psychotherapy. 

Overcome Your Childhood Trauma

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