Childhood trauma can be linked to several mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. It also impacts physical health, causing chronic pain, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
For our bodies to function correctly, they must respond when faced with stressful events or situations. When stressors occur during early development, this response system becomes altered. If you suffered from abuse as a child, you might find yourself struggling to cope with life as an adult.
Mental Illness when the Brain’s Protection Becomes Dysfunction
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are any experience that occurs before 18 years of age that may impact health in later life. ACEs include physical abuse or childhood sexual abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, childhood neglect, household dysfunction, parental separation/divorce, family member incarceration, community violence, bullying, and household substance abuse.
The effects and traumatic memories of unresolved childhood trauma can be long-lasting or short-lived, depending on the severity. Traumatic memories become stored in our brains like other types of memory. They don’t disappear when we’re no longer exposed to them; they just get less accessible over time. This is called “retrieval inhibition.”
Your brain protects itself by creating new neural connections between different parts of your body. When someone hurts you physically or emotionally, your brain creates pathways so that if that person does hurt you again, you’ll be prepared! But sometimes, the brain doesn’t make enough protective pathways for all its neurons. When childhood abuse is severe, earlier traumatic experiences get trapped in the unconscious mind of the brain and within the nervous system. This will affect both the physical health and mental health of the trauma survivor.
Create a New Pattern of Reaction
It’s normal to struggle with anxiety and panic attacks after experiencing trauma. It’s also common to feel numb, detached, angry, sad, guilty, ashamed, hopeless, helpless, confused, or depressed. These symptoms show that your brain has been affected by a type of trauma or disturbing events during adverse childhood experiences.
We often don’t realize that our thoughts and beliefs influence our biology and its health effects until we change them. We need to change our thinking patterns first, and only then can we begin healing.
- Are you a people pleaser?
- Do you avoid conflict?
- Do you have a problematic relationship with a friend, loved one, or coworker?
As an adult survivor, you could be repeating a pattern from your past. Recognizing feelings of depression, guilt, powerlessness, and bad habits resulting in adverse outcomes is the first step in removing the harmful effects of earlier trauma.
Common Dysfunction and Behavioral Symptoms Stemming from Childhood Emotional & Psychological Trauma
- Depression is a mood disorder causing sadness, loss of interest in activities, feelings of worthlessness, guilt, poor concentration, disturbed sleep, appetite changes, and suicidal thoughts.
- Anxiety is an unpleasant emotional state often creating feelings of fear, dread, worry, apprehension, panic, nervousness, unease, tension, and/or agitation.
- Anger is an emotion that can be caused by many things, including frustration, disappointment, fear, sadness, joy, love, hate, jealousy, envy, pride, shame, guilt, embarrassment, disgust, contempt, surprise, anticipation, anxiety, boredom, confusion, worry, and so on.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder stemming from exposure to a traumatic event. Someone was threatened with death or experienced actual physical harm. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and feelings of numbness or detachment.
- Dissociation is a psychological state when a person experiences a break between conscious awareness and unconscious thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, perceptions, and bodily states. Symptoms may include feeling detached from oneself, experiencing depersonalization, derealization, amnesia, dissociative identity disorders, and fugue states.
- Agoraphobia is characterized by intense fears of being unable to escape places where help would be challenging to find. Agoraphobic symptoms are usually triggered by situations involving heights, open spaces, crowds, or public transportation. People who have agoraphobia avoid these feared situations at almost any cost.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a psychiatric disorder characterized by obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted intrusive thoughts or images, while compulsions are repetitive behaviors performed out of habit without regard for their purpose.
Therapeutic Treatments for Healing from Childhood Trauma
Top-down: The top-down approach involves working directly with the brain’s limbic system through neurofeedback training. Neurofeedback uses EEG biofeedback technology to train specific brain parts to become more active during certain tasks. This helps people learn how to control emotions and stress levels.
Bottom-up: The bottom-up approach works with the body’s autonomic nervous system using EMDR therapy. This therapy is based upon research showing that trauma affects the way our bodies respond to stressful events. By retraining the body to release chemicals associated with relaxation, this technique allows us to heal from past traumas.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBT focuses on changing negative thought patterns and beliefs about ourselves and others. Through cognitive restructuring, we change our thinking processes and behavior toward those around us. We also work on identifying unhelpful coping strategies and replacing them with healthier ones.
Mindfulness Meditation: a technique designed to help you focus on what is happening right now in place of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. You will learn to observe your mind and body as you experience each moment.
Cognitive Processing Therapy: CPCT is a form of psychotherapy developed specifically for treating PTSD. It combines elements of both traditional talk therapies and behavioral treatments such as exposure therapy. In addition to helping clients process painful memories, it aims to teach them new ways of responding to threatening stimuli so they don’t feel overwhelmed.
Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET): During treatment, a mental health professional will guide patients into reliving distressing memories until they no longer trigger flashbacks or nightmares.
Therapy for healing the deepest wounds from our early years is essential for personal growth and health. It is also vital for a healthy society as a whole. Survivors of childhood trauma can choose from many practical solutions to overcome the impact of abuse and change the quality of their relationships and patterns in their life.