Childhood Trauma: How Your Past Harms Your Present
Although some people can experience a traumatic event and move on without apparent long-term impact, others will experience lingering effects, either large or small. For some trauma victims, certain events, objects or sounds will trigger a re-experiencing of the trauma or prompt an extreme attempt to avoid remembering. Some relive the trauma repeatedly, and suffer from physical symptoms like sweating, muscle tension and racing heart. Others feel continuously anxious and stressed and find it difficult to concentrate, eat, sleep and manage emotions. Some constantly recreate their early trauma in present time and others carry on the traits of abusive parents. Many people who have suffered through trauma try to quell their pain with drugs or alcohol leading to addiction.
Research Proves the Damage Causes By Early Trauma
Among some of the discoveries:
- A 2015 King’s College London study found that childhood trauma can cause long-term changes in the body’s immune function, making the person more vulnerable to a variety of ailments as they age. These can include chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, lung disease, arthritis and cancer, as well as mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis.
- Childhood trauma and childhood abuse have been linked to an increased risk of addiction, as the person turns to drugs or alcohol to try to self-medicate away painful feelings or, in some cases, to feel something. An estimated two-thirds of those who get treatment for substance use disorders, in fact, report childhood histories of emotional, sexual or physical abuse, research Childhood trauma has been linked to food addiction as well, especially in women.
- A 2016 University of Michigan study found a link between childhood trauma and problems making those quick “go or don’t go” decisions that are part of everyday life and so crucial in emergencies. And when decisions are made, they tend to be more impulsive and less accurate. Though the study’s researchers had initially looked to see if those with bipolar disorder had problems with impulse control, they found instead that a troubled childhood was actually the common thread.
To those with trauma in their past, findings such as these come together to form a deeply discouraging picture. But it’s not all bad news: Each discovery of the mechanisms behind trauma helps us refine strategies to deal with it and takes us closer to developing new treatments. The more we know, in short, the more we know about how to overcome it.
The King’s College researchers, for example, hope their research will help lead to the creation of tailored medications that can decrease the trauma-induced inflammation that appears linked to illness. And all of the studies point out an important reality: Treatments are currently available that can be highly effective, and the sooner childhood trauma is addressed, the less power it has to continue harming us.
What Causes Trauma?
Causes of trauma include:
- Physical or sexual abuse or assault
- Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence
- Emotional or psychological abuse
- Neglect (failure of primary caregiver to provide basic needs)
- Victim of terrorist attack or war
- Combat experience
- Serious or chronic illness or medical problem
- Witnessing or being a victim of violent crime
- Natural disasters
- Forced removal from home
- Loss of — or separation from — a loved one
- Being bullied as a child or an adult or witnessing bullying
Types of Trauma
There several different types of trauma to be aware of. These include:
Acute trauma, also known as acute stress disorder, is usually caused by a one-time terrifying or threatening event, such as an accident, assault or catastrophic occurrence that causes intense emotional pain or physical duress. The traumatic event sparks feelings of extreme fear that persist for up to a month after the event is over. Acute stress disorder can interfere with relationships and job functioning and cause general withdrawal, as the person begins to perceive social and work situations as suddenly threatening. In some cases, acute trauma will go away on its own, but in other cases the symptoms will linger, worsen over time and evolve into anxiety, depression or PTSD.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a severe form of anxiety triggered by a terrifying or threatening event. The normal reaction to danger is “fight/flight,” which ensures our safety and survival and dissipates when the crisis is over. With PTSD, rather than getting better over time, symptoms get worse or linger for months or more, making it difficult to function day-to-day. The stress and fear persist even when the danger is gone.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can develop at any age. Some of the events that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder include:
- Military service
- A serious accident
- Being diagnosed with a terminal or chronic illness
- Sudden loss of a loved one
- A natural or manmade disaster
- Physical or emotional abuse
- Abusive sexual experiences like sexual assault
For some, symptoms of PTSD are ongoing, and for others, symptoms occur sporadically, sometimes triggered when the individual encounters reminders of the traumatic event (e.g., seeing a story in the news about a natural disaster or an assault may be a reminder of one’s own experience). Although symptoms can also arise when the person suffering from PTSD feels alone, overwhelmed or at risk of harm. People who have post-traumatic stress disorder run a greater risk of substance abuse, depression, eating disorders and other mental health issues, as well as physical illnesses such as heart disease and chronic pain.
Complex trauma usually results from ongoing traumatic events, such as:
- Long-term military combat
- Physical or emotional abuse, particularly if it’s at the hands of a parent or caregiver
- Emotional neglect or an overly enmeshed caregiver
- Chronic illness
- Series of unrelated traumatic events, unwanted or abusive experiences
If left untreated, complex trauma can lead to mood disorders, chronic depression or other mental health problems.
Complex trauma tends to become more deeply rooted with each traumatic event. People experiencing complex trauma begin resorting to more and more maladaptive coping skills. People might respond to repeated trauma by shutting down emotions, closing off others, or drowning intense feelings in drugs, alcohol or some other form of escape.
Trauma Warning Signs
Warning signs of trauma can range from temporary anxiety to profound psychological distress. If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms enough that they’re having a negative impact on your life and relationships, you may consider specialized trauma treatment at a trauma recovery center:
- Anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions
- Insomnia, sleep disturbances or recurrent nightmares
- Physical symptoms such as pain and ailments
- Substance abuse
- Sexual addiction
- Disordered eating behaviors
- Recurrent, involuntary memories of traumatic events
- Altered sense of reality
- Inability to remember parts or all of a traumatic event
- Irritability or unprovoked angry outbursts
- Panic attacks
- Chaotic or impulsive behavior
- Avoiding experiences that trigger unwanted memories
- Feeling disconnected or emotionally numb
- Feelings of anger, guilt, worry or depression
- Difficulty forming close relationships
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Being easily startled
There’s no single answer for how to overcome a troubled past. Trauma affects each person differently and to different degrees, and each will respond differently to treatment. But among the many effective approaches now being used are:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This form of psychotherapy helps the person explore their thinking and recognize self-destructive patterns such as over-generalizing, catastrophizing (assuming the worst) and minimizing the good and obsessing about the bad. For some, the result is a dramatic change in emotional state and quality of life.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): It’s similar to CBT but focuses on helping the person understand that while their emotions are valid, these feelings may have led them to create counter-productive coping mechanisms, and healthier responses can be developed.
- Somatic Experiencing: This therapeutic technique is based on the premise that trauma that is “un-discharged” can cause a person to be either stuck in a state of anxiety and hypervigilance or in fatigue and disconnection. With Somatic Experiencing, the person works through the trauma but does not need to relive it or even share details of it with the clinician. To those disturbed by the thought of revisiting the past, this is an important plus.
- Neurofeedback: With this technique, the person essentially learns how to exert control over certain brainwaves, which can help with a variety of issues, including disordered thinking, anxiety and depression. It’s a noninvasive procedure in which the patient is hooked up to electrodes that allow them to monitor their brain activity and learn to influence it in positive ways.
- Medication can also help deal with the issues that grow from trauma, such as depression and anxiety.
Sometimes these treatments are used solo and sometimes in combination, but they represent just a few of the items on a broad and constantly growing menu of options for those working to put the past in the past.
A Silver Lining
Along with the multiple studies highlighting the negative effects of childhood trauma, there is also research that offers encouragement. A 2011 study published in an Association for Psychological Science (APS) journal noted that the old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may be true, in a certain sense. People who go through tough times have a chance to develop the ability to cope, unlike those who have never known distress, the study revealed. In the long run, that can make the person more resilient.
That’s not to say trauma should be in any way sought out or minimized. “Negative events have negative effects,” said Mark D. Seery of the University of Buffalo, author of the research, in an interview with the APS. “I really look at this as being a silver lining. Just because something bad has happened to someone doesn’t mean they’re doomed to be damaged from that point on.”