Sometimes the world feels overwhelming. The news seems filled with stories of adults doing seemingly inexplicable things: mass shootings, child sexual abuse, or secret addictions. Then your circle of friends seems to increasingly become victims of disease – autoimmune disorders, cancer, and more. What’s going on? None of these disparate things starts in a vacuum. Rather, they are often signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults. Now you might be saying to yourself, exactly how does childhood trauma affect adults?
Definition of Trauma and Childhood Trauma
What is trauma anyway? Let’s start with some definitions. Trauma is caused when your body’s natural defenses are overcome or when your brain doesn’t have a frame of reference with which it can make sense of something. Childhood trauma is an event or series of events experienced or witnessed by a child that evoke fear and are usually violent, dangerous, or life-threatening. Sometimes referred to as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, many of these experiences can lead to trauma.
Childhood trauma doesn’t have to involve experiences that occur directly to the child. For example, watching a loved one get hurt or endure a major health issue can be extremely traumatic for children.
Some children may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a traumatic event. Children with PTSD may re-experience the trauma in their minds repeatedly. They might also avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma or they may re-enact trauma through their play.
Because of the way the developing brain is structured, younger children particularly under age 10 often believe that the trauma was their fault. They may also believe they missed warning signs predicting the traumatic event. In order to prevent future traumas, they become hypervigilant, looking for signs that something bad is going to happen again.
Adults with Childhood Trauma – the Effects
Traumatic events can affect how a child’s brain develops. This can result in lifelong physical, mental, and social consequences for adults with childhood trauma. When a child experiences a traumatic event, it can impair their physical development. The stress can also impair the development of their immune and central nervous systems. A 2019 review of 134 research-based articles revealed that exposure to adverse experiences as children increases the risk of developing several different conditions such as autoimmune diseases, pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, in adulthood.
This is in line with the results of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Study of Adverse Childhood Experiences, which examined the childhood histories of over 17,000 adults with respect to 10 types of childhood trauma. This study found a “dose-dependent” relationship between incidents of childhood trauma and the later development of physical disease, substance abuse, and more. The higher the exposures to these traumas, the higher the ACE score. (Find out your vulnerability from ACEs here.)
Another important element in childhood trauma is the child’s relationship with their caregivers. This “attachment relationship” is vital to a child’s emotional and physical health. Healthy attachment with their caregivers helps a child learn to trust others, manage emotions, and positively interact with the world around them. When a child experiences a trauma that teaches them that they can’t trust or rely on that caregiver, they’re likely to believe that the world around them is a scary place and people are dangerous. When childhood trauma goes untreated, issues related to the trauma are often not resolved and can be felt into and throughout adulthood.
What is Complex Trauma
Complex trauma refers to a series of traumatic events that take place over a long period of time. Complex PTSD is most often connected to early childhood trauma, also called developmental trauma. Some complex trauma symptoms are the same as PTSD. These include feeling anxious, having flashbacks, and avoiding circumstances that remind you of the traumatic events. In addition, complex trauma can distort your sense of self, make it difficult to control your emotions, or cause relationship challenges. Researchers estimate that more than 3% of people in the United States meet the criteria for complex trauma, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).
If you have complex trauma, you experience the same physiological response to trauma as those with the non-complex variety. That is, when you experience a traumatic event it activates the limbic system in your brain. This shuts down all nonessential systems and floods your body with stress hormones so you can prepare for “fight, flight, or freeze.” After the danger passes, your parasympathetic nervous system reverses this hormonal arousal to provide inner calm. At this point, normal cognitive and non-essential system functions return.
However, when you live with complex trauma, this balance doesn’t completely return. The limbic system stays engaged most of the time as it works to try to stay safe in the face of ongoing adversity. Over time, this “always on” state becomes a “new normal” for the brain and body. This bodily state can affect your thoughts, actions, and relationships.
Complex trauma can arise in any situation where you feel an ongoing sense of fear, helplessness, or powerlessness over an extended period, with a perceived or actual inability to escape. It usually stems from trauma experienced in early childhood although it can develop from trauma in adulthood, as well.
Symptoms of complex trauma can include flashbacks, difficulty regulating emotions, hyperarousal (being “on alert”), lapses in memory, sleep disturbances, low self-esteem, and avoiding people or places that upset you – sometimes through dissociation. Somatic, or physical symptoms such as unexplained headaches or pain or digestive issues are also common with complex trauma. Since the body is under chronic stress, it can lower your immune system and lead to chronic health conditions including autoimmune disorders.
How to Heal from Childhood Trauma
There are a few different therapies that are effective for complex trauma.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
A therapist guides you with gentle bilateral tapping or tones to reprocess traumatic events and form new beliefs around them.
Internal Family Systems (IFS)
With this approach you learn to integrate the different parts of your personality into one “self” to reprocess traumatic events in a way that can no longer harm you.
Somatic therapies such as Somatic Experiencing
Trauma resides in the limbic area of the brain and not the frontal cortex, which is used to talk in therapy. Somatic therapies can teach your body that it doesn’t have to be prepared for trauma all of the time. Some of these therapies have an optional therapeutic touch element, which is particularly helpful for treating trauma that occurred in early childhood.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
With CBT you explore the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Once you become aware of the connections you may be able to change your actions.
If you think you may be struggling as a result of Childhood Trauma, Life Care Wellness has therapists trained in these techniques who can help you. Please reach out to us at our Glen Ellyn, Chicago (Jefferson Park), or Sycamore offices.
Rhonda Kelloway is the owner and principal therapist at Life Care Wellness, a group psychotherapy practice in Glen Ellyn, Sycamore, and Chicago (Jefferson Park neighborhood), Illinois. She is a trauma specialist utilizing a Somatic Experiencing framework to utilize the body’s wisdom in healing. She also uses EMDR and a variety of traditional psychotherapy approaches in her work. In addition to being a psychotherapist, she is a trained divorce and family mediator.