Childhood trauma is dark and peculiar, sometimes inscrutable and mysterious. It is often as hard to remember as it is to describe, like a language you don’t speak even though it’s technically your mother tongue. It’s remnants and ripple effects can show up secretly in your patterns as you become an adult, often without your knowledge or control.
For me, the symptoms of childhood trauma due to growing up in an abusive alcoholic home showed up through my own substance abuse, which I no longer enact. But I still see its effects on the struggles I have with mental health, intimacy, and self-esteem. I’ve spent most of life operating to make myself less vulnerable — in ways that have been a success and a means of survival. How when it comes to love and sex, in particular, it can prove to be a barrier. It results in behavior that’s frustrating and unfulfilling, like giving myself to people who can’t give back, to say the least.
But childhood trauma symptoms show up in different ways for different people. While yes, sometimes, there are no symptoms, if you have a childhood trauma history and have some lingering behavioral patterns or emotional struggles that run deep, know that you aren’t alone in this — and know there is a connection between these things that you can address and heal.
“Adults with a trauma history have a higher incidence of depression, anxiety, and addiction; often these are the issues that bring them into therapy.”
“Adults with a trauma history have a higher incidence of depression, anxiety, and addiction; often these are the issues that bring them into therapy,” psychologist Dr. Karin Cleary tells The Temper. “They often have difficulty forming strong attachments with others, and low self-esteem, usually based on an inaccurate view of themselves, is quite common.”
They might struggle to build even basic friendships that are strong and lasting and there can be an expectation that the other person ultimately will end up hurting them, Cleary explains. It’s also not uncommon that adults with a trauma history get into relationships that are unhealthy as they likely don’t see themselves as deserving a strong and healthy relationship and struggle to really emotionally attach to people.
It’s also not uncommon that adults with a trauma history get into relationships that are unhealthy as they likely don’t see themselves as deserving a strong and healthy relationship and struggle to really emotionally attach to people.
The list of ways childhood trauma can show up, however, is extensive. Cleary gives some examples of symptoms that show up more obviously, like intrusive thoughts or memories about what happened, avoidance of anything that might remind a person of the trauma, trouble remembering important aspects of what happened, negative beliefs about self, others or the world, trouble experiencing pleasant emotions, self-destructive behaviors or hypervigilance.
But less common or obvious symptoms can include things like trouble with attachment to other people, trouble relaxing, often feeling lonely or isolated, harsh and chronic self-criticism, depression, problematic friendships, poor boundaries, indecision, addictions, trouble being motivated. Struggles with eating disorders, impulsivity, self-harm, trouble with sex or physical intimacy, suicidal thoughts, or experiencing one’s body or the world as unreal. Of course, symptoms aren’t limited to these things, either.
When one builds awareness around the connection between trauma and current issues, because trauma impacts a person on a neurological level, it can be difficult to shift and change behavior without treatment and outside help.
“When someone goes through a traumatic experience, the amygdala (essentially our fear center) gets triggered and our body and brain go into fight-flight-freeze mode, sending all sorts of neurochemicals through our body to help prepare and protect us,” Cleary says. “After the experience is over, this subsides and the brain resets to its normal state. However, with chronic trauma or when PTSD develops, the brain never really resets and the stress hormones stay elevated, leading to the brain staying in a constant state of alert.”
When these hormones stay elevated, Clearly explains, the fear center stays activated, it prevents other areas of the brain from functioning the way they are meant to when not in an actual dangerous situation. Hence symptoms that can become chronic and problematic.
“With chronic trauma or when PTSD develops, the brain never really resets and the stress hormones stay elevated, leading to the brain staying in a constant state of alert.”
Psychoanalyst Dr. Gita Zarnegar, the co-founder of The Center for Authenticity, tells The Temper that, in her experience, the adverse effects of childhood trauma can be treated through long-term psychodynamic and psychoanalytic psychotherapy.
“Therapy can provide adults with a corrective emotional experience when the therapist is able to witness, validate, empathize and provide language for something that was never said or formulated early on,” Dr. Zarnegar says. “Therapy can help patients to rearrange and replace their old and negative self-representations with a new understanding of the self as resilient and anti-fragile.”
When you both understand and digest what happened to you and how it affects you, you learn how to shift your behaviors and lessen the judgments you have around that process.
Dr. Zarnegar says that when the “residual, unformulated deposit of trauma” is formulated and understood in a way that frees the self from being buried by shame, denial, and negation, one begins the path to healing. In other words, when you both understand and digest what happened to you and how it affects you, you learn how to shift your behaviors and lessen the judgments you have around that process, the closer you get to freedom. It’s not an easy process but it’s possible. One way to do that, she says, is to examine and be careful about the people you spend time with.
“When you surround yourself with loving and supportive people who are not afraid of the intensity and legitimacy of your feelings, you are already in a self-healing mode,” Dr. Zarengar says. “[Then] you are not replicating your negative childhood experiences of trauma in your current relationships. Creating healthy relational sanctuaries are the roads to continuous corrective emotional experiences.”
Ultimately, healing is unique to each person — but getting support and assistance is crucial.