Experiencing trauma as an adult has many similarities when comparing how adults behave after experiencing childhood trauma. This post identifies the typical patterns that emerge from childhood trauma. The experience is related to trauma lived by a female, however many adult males are affected by trauma during their adult lives as well.
What is trauma?
Trauma is a powerful and emotional response to a distressing event. Trauma can continue to have considerable emotional and physical influence over us long after the event is over.
Trauma and its effect on our body
Trauma disrupts the stress-hormone system. It plays havoc with the entire nervous system, which prevents people from processing and integrating traumatic memories into their everyday way of thinking, feeling and behaving.
Traumatic memories stay “stuck” in areas of the brain where they are not accessible to our conscious mind.
The understanding, thinking and reasoning parts of the brain don’t have access to the traumatic experience (that gets jumbled up and isn’t processed properly at the time of the trauma) due to its intense emotional content.
The brain is unable to make sense of the intense distress and doesn’t store it correctly. This is why we often cannot make sense of the way we behave even though our ‘reasonable mind’ knows it is wrong or unhelpful. For example – we may return to an abusive ex even though we know they are bad for us and that we should stay away.
Childhood trauma never escapes the body. The mental and emotional scars leave a physical imprint upon the nervous system. Trauma deeply affects the way the brain develops especially up until the age of 7 years old. When we are born, we are a blank slate. Our experiences leave their Mark upon this blank slate and help us to create our perceptions of the world around us.
If we are consistently loved and cared for his children, our nervous system develops in a healthy manner. If however, there is abuse and neglect, our brain forms different neural pathways in an attempt to cope with the distressing experiences.
John Bowlby created Attachment Theory. The theory states that the way you relate to relationships when you are an adult is affected by the way you were looked after as a child. If your primary caregiver looked after you well and consistently made you feel loved, you are likely to end up with a secure attachment style. When you have a secure attachment style you are more open to being vulnerable and automatically expect that others will love you in return.
If, on the other hand, you have experienced neglect or abuse of any kind, your attachment style will be anxious or avoidant and this will cause problems in your adult life. You may find that you are highly fearful of being abandoned, you might be hypervigilant, and you may also have an innate skill of being able to read others. This would have evolved from being a frightened child who is unable to escape a distressing situation. The only way to cope is to be tuned in to the adults around you and to anticipate their moods.
Common dating patterns
Trauma as an adult also manifests in common ways when dating. Some individuals end up promiscuous as they confuse sexual contact with love and validation. Many children who do not receive love and affection crave this as an adult because their attachment style is not secure, they have unhelpful ways of seeking love.
Another pattern that I have observed with many clients that I have seen who have experienced trauma – they tend to be attracted to people who deny them love and affection. It isn’t fully understood why this happens but there are theories that suggest, the nervous system imprint is activated by a neglectful or abusive partner.
This rejection (or the feeling of not being good enough) feels familiar to someone experiencing trauma as an adult and they unintentionally seek out this interaction or dynamic. The irony is that when they find a loving and caring partner, individuals who have been traumatised as children will often reject this love. There is an underlying core belief that they are undeserving of love.
The imprint on the nervous system has a strong power over our behaviour as adults. It can sometimes be impossible to override the rational side of our brain because the emotional pull (before may Trigger) is far greater.
Trauma as an adult can manifest in irrational behaviour. Self sabotage is also high on the list of typical behaviours. Even though the mind, is telling us that we deserve better or that we should respect ourselves, the pull to go back to the abusive partner is so overwhelming – almost like an addiction.
Former as an adult challenges an individual’s sense of self. Children who have been neglected often feel that if their parents don’t love them, who in the world will ever care for them? Early negative messages can be incredibly damaging and can take years to undo, often requiring counselling and intensive therapy.
Guilt and shame
The truly sad aspect of trauma is that the victim is made to feel guilty for their responses to the early trauma. They are told to stop being a victim or that they are making something out of nothing. Trauma is minimised and often family members do not want to talk about it. Whether that is due to their own shame and guilt, trauma is often buried as if it never happened.
At times the traumatic experience can be so intense that a child learns to associate from their emotional state. The extreme form of this condition is called Multiple Personality Disorder. This is when someone splits into various personalities in an attempt to distance themselves from the emotional and/or physical abuse. The brain is amazing in the ways that it tries to protect us from distress. Disassociation allows a child to lead more of a normal life away from the threatening environment that they are in. Children are unable to escape their abusers and have to become resourceful with their coping mechanisms.
Disassociation can cause problems in later life. Trauma as an adult doesn’t always work as effectively as it might have done when we were children. Early coping mechanisms that once kept us fairly safe now act as barriers towards intimacy and connecting with others. Counseling can help to reduce dissociation and help vulnerable adults to learn to trust and let others in. This can be a slow process but it can be well worth the effort.
Sometimes eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia can be traced back to childhood trauma. When you are left feeling unworthy or not good enough, it can result in a feeling of powerlessness or a feeling of lacking control. One thing that all of us can usually control is how much food we put in our bodies. An eating disorder can emerge in response to a chaotic childhood or a sense of being powerless or helpless. Eating disorders represent a form of control that was lacking in childhood.
The link between Personality Disorders and trauma
Sadly, childhood trauma can result in a personality disordered adult. Personality disorders are enduring patterns of behaviour due to faulty wiring in the brain. Trauma short circuits the brain and creates faulty associations. Whether these faulty associations create an adult with low self-esteem or someone who reacts in the opposite way and becomes aggressive and entitled, these associations can create lifelong anxiety and depression.
Trauma as an adult can lead to perfectionism. If a child received frequent messages that they were not good enough or loved, or that the love received from their parents was conditional, an adult can respond by constantly trying to fill that void. The irony is that sometimes this leads to high achieving adults although they never address the underlying causes and often end up feeling empty and unfulfilled. The emptiness comes from feeling unworthy and achievement does not provide closure.
Healing from trauma
Trauma can be treated although the earlier it started and the longer it continued, the more difficult it can be to treat. Sadly, some parents repeat the entire cycle of abuse that they received as children with their own children due to a lack of awareness. Whenever I spot an adult with unhelpful behavioural patterns such as addiction, relationship issues that are repetitive in nature, nightmares and flashbacks (typical of PTSD) or general developmental issues including self-sabotage, intense perfectionism etc… It is often a sign that childhood trauma is an influencer.
Many people do not understand the link between childhood trauma and unhelpful or destructive adult behaviours. Mental health disorders often emerge from abuse and neglect as a child.
Yep- some parents have a lot to answer for. Some parents willingly engage in abuse and neglect while others are either repeating the abuse they received as children or are simply ignorant of the damaging effects of their behaviour towards their children.
Either way, I wonder how much trauma and mental health issues we could avoid if parents were more informed about how their behaviours create lifelong damage for their children.
If you behave in ways that you do not understand, self Sabotage regularly or have a history of volatile and unsuccessful relationships, it might be worth considering how happy and loved you felt in your childhood.
Of course, not everything is down to childhood trauma, although from my experience as a counsellor, I have found that childhood trauma is responsible for, at the very minimum, 60 -70% of the mental health issues I currently treat.
Trauma doesn’t have to maintain an invisible hold over you, there are many successful treatments that can minimise the impact of traumatic experiences. PTSD takes many forms – childhood trauma (complex), trauma from witnessing something shocking (such as a car accident, war etc).
Eye movement desensitisation reprocessing (more commonly known as EMDR), is a form of psychotherapy developed in the 1980s by American psychologist Francine Shapiro. While walking in a park, Shapiro made a chance observation that certain eye movements appeared to reduce the negative emotion associated with her own traumatic memories. When she experimented, she found that others also exhibited a similar response to eye movements. After further study and experimentation, EMDR was developed.
CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological treatment that is effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders, and severe mental illness.
Numerous research studies suggest that CBT leads to significant improvement in functioning and quality of life. In many studies, CBT has been demonstrated to be as effective as, or more effective than, other forms of psychological therapy or psychiatric medications.
It is important to emphasize that advances in CBT have been made on the basis of both research and clinical practice. Indeed, CBT is an approach for which there is ample scientific evidence that the methods that have been developed actually produce change. In this manner, CBT differs from many other forms of psychological treatment.