If you experience trauma when you’re a child, your nervous system takes a ‘hit’ and your physical body changes – like an imprint or scar on your nervous system that never disappears, even into adulthood. This is why you sometimes can’t think your way out of a highly stressful and emotional experience. When something triggers your earlier experiences as an adult, your brain takes a shortcut to the previous trauma. This can be hugely emotionally overwhelming. This is when you are reliving the upsetting experience.
Re-experiencing the Trauma
Trauma survivors may re-experience their trauma through thoughts, feelings, memories, and other means. Re-experiencing can be very distressing , and may trigger uncomfortable emotions such as fear, anger, or sadness.
• Flashbacks (uncontrollable vivid images and memories)
• Distressing thoughts and feelings about the previous distressing experience
• Emotional distress or physical responses after experiencing a reminder
Avoidance of Trauma Reminders
Because reminders can be so distressing, it is common for trauma survivors to use avoidance to control these reactions.
• Using drugs or alcohol to suppress uncomfortable thoughts and emotions
• Avoidance of activities such as never getting in a car after a car accident
• Avoidance of people, places, or things
• Suppressing thoughts related to the experience
• Avoidance of conversations about the trauma
Negative Thoughts or Feelings
Negative thoughts or feelings may begin or worsen after experiencing a trauma. Some of these thoughts and feelings might not seem to relate directly to the upsetting experience.
• Excessive blame toward oneself or others as well as self-criticism
• Loss of interest in activities
• Feelings of isolation or disconnection from surroundings
• Difficulty experiencing positive feelings
• Loss of memory related to the upsetting event
• Excessive negative thoughts about oneself or the world
Reactivity, or a feeling of being “on edge”, may begin or worsen after a distressing experience. This category includes a broad range of physical and psychological symptoms.
• Becoming irritable, quick to anger, or aggressive
• Heightened startle reaction
• Difficulty concentrating
• Frequently scanning the environment or watching for reminders
• Difficulty sleeping
• Feelings of anxiety, and related symptoms such as a racing heart, upset stomach, or headaches
• Risky or impulsive behavior
Childhood trauma is also known as complex trauma because it occurs frequently over a long time, it isn’t a one-off like a car accident (simple not complex), for example.
Adults who have experienced trauma are often good at reading other people’s emotions. They learned this as a survival skill. Children can’t escape abusive or neglectful parents and as a result, they learn to be in-tune with the moods of the adults around them. Another coping skill is known as dissociation – a way to compartmentalize strong unpleasant emotions. Feelings get ‘put in a box’ and suppressed. As an adult this coping mechanism can persist and make relationships more complicated. Disassociation limits communication.
Trauma can be dealt with and lessened over time but many don’t acknowledge that their out-of-control behaviour is related to early experiences that were highly emotional and stressful. When you behave in ways that have you questioning why you do it (it may be self-sabotaging or unhelpful), you may be compensating for trauma. I suffered childhood trauma and it still affects me today (mainly in my relationships) but I am more in touch my my ‘healthy adult’ and soothe the inner child (I know it sounds ‘psychobabbly’ but I promise it’s a thing!) instead of getting angry when I can’t intellectualise my way out of a situation.
Seeing a counsellor can help you repack the trauma and cope with it as an adult. Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy is one of the top treatments for childhood trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).