In part one of this series, Understanding Childhood Trauma, we covered what trauma is and what childhood trauma is. We also discussed the many potential causes of childhood trauma. In this second part of the series, I will cover the effects of childhood trauma on adults and ways to pursue treatment and recovery from the effects of childhood trauma.
Childhood trauma can cast a long shadow over the lives of those who experienced it. That shadow can consist of impacts on mental and physical health, substance use issues, and difficulties maintaining relationships of all kinds.
The Impact of Trauma on Health
Childhood trauma is caused by a wide spectrum of painful experiences, including but not limited to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, witnessing domestic violence in the home, and experiencing significant losses. Losses may be of one or both parents through change in custody or death or may include losses of other significant caregivers and family members. Up next, we will discuss some of the ways childhood trauma can impact an individual.
Mental Health Issues:
Childhood trauma is a significant risk factor for the development of many kinds of mental disorders. Of these, the disorders with the strongest correlation to childhood trauma include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder. These conditions involve a range of emotional and behavioral challenges.
Physical Health Issues:
Childhood trauma is strongly correlated with many physical health problems. The strongest connections exist with chronic pain, autoimmune disorders of all kinds, and a weakened immune system. This is thought to be due to the physiological stress responses triggered by traumatic experiences. Many individuals who experienced trauma as a child will stay on high alert, increasing stress on their organs and vascular systems. They may also have difficulty seeking medical care due to fear of judgment or dismissal. Those with a history of childhood trauma may also have become conditioned to ignoring their own pain or a heightened sense of chronic pain due to an overactive neurological system.
Substance Use is highly correlated with having experienced childhood trauma. The federal agency SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) dedicated many years and large sums of money to the ACEs Study which found that Adverse Childhood Experiences are the primary predictor of adult substance use later in life. The connection is explained by the need of survivors to cope with their emotional pain in a context which lacks adequate support. The effects of addiction to substances can increase damage to bodies and worsen mental health issues.
Relationship Problems Caused by Childhood Trauma
The effects of childhood trauma often extend to an individual’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. There are several reasons for this. Here are some common relationship problems stemming from childhood trauma.
Trust Issues: Childhood trauma can erode a person’s ability to trust others. This can lead to difficulties in forming close bonds and a fear of being hurt or betrayed.
Attachment Issues: Trauma can interfere with an individual’s ability to form secure attachments, making it very difficult to develop healthy, secure, and intimate relationships.
Communication Challenges: Childhood trauma can impair effective communication, as individuals may struggle to express their emotions and needs, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts.
Repetition of Unhealthy Patterns: Trauma survivors may unconsciously seek out relationships that mirror the dynamics of their traumatic experiences, perpetuating a cycle of dysfunction or abuse.
Reasons for these Effects
Survivors of childhood trauma often experience issues trusting people close to them. This can show up in their lives as trusting people who are, in fact, not trustworthy or may even be dangerous to them. It can also show up as not being able to trust, despite all attempts to do so, people are have proven themselves to be very safe and trustworthy. This effect is painful in both instances because the person in the first scenario continues to undergo abuse trauma while the person in the second situation never experiences the solace of trust and safety they missed out on as a child.
This underlying damage to a person’s ability to trust and understanding of how to determine who and which situations are safe is ultimately what causes attachment issues. Attachment issues are essentially difficult maintaining secure and health relationships due to reactive responses to fear of being hurt in the present due to painful childhood relationships with caregivers.
Communication challenges often arise from unmet childhood needs for developing emotional language and expressing emotion. Those who experience childhood emotional neglect and abuse often have difficulty identifying and expressing needs and asking for help. Often, emotional regulation is a challenge for these individuals due to receiving inappropriate responses from caregivers when emotions arose in childhood.
The repetition of unhealthy patterns is a natural consequence of these experiences. Those who want to refrain from repeating unhealthy patterns, will need to work hard, gain education, build a support system, and learn to ask for help in order to change these patterns. All of these are things which are inherently difficult for the person who has experienced childhood trauma.
Individuals who have experienced difficult childhood experiences are not alone. The statistics that are currently available suggest that 20-30 percent of American adults experience abuse or neglect as a child. However, my professional experience informs me that these numbers are vastly underreported. Many people simply to do identify what they went through as being abuse or neglect. Greater than 90% of the clients who seek treatment in my office will report Adverse Childhood Experiences, but many more will never seek treatment. If you are struggling with these issues, I have several resources available which may be helpful to you.
Take the next steps towards your mental health goals with my online video course, Healing Generational Trauma: Paving Your Path to Wholeness at Generational Trauma Healing Course | Inward & Onward Therapy (inwardonwardtherapy.com)