Childhood Traumas – Why You are Stuck
Do you feel like your life is in a rut and you can’t get out? Is it challenging to do the things life calls of you, such as being fully present as a parent, having a healthy relationship with your spouse, or having the energy to get everything done because of depression, anxiety, or overwhelm? Or do some days not seem worth getting up from under the duvet covers – I know how it feels.
Healing is possible
There are ways we can start healing our past traumatic events and adverse childhood experiences to allow us to live in adulthood with full agency and activation to go after what we want in life. It’s possible to access safety in your body, feel good emotionally, and have solid relationships. You deserve to feel relief and live a life you feel great about. Experiencing child traumatic stress may be the culprit impacting your mental health. But don’t worry, there are mental health services that create much-needed relief.
1. Early childhood trauma – who suffers?
It’s not surprising that childhood trauma and traumatic events can significantly impact your mental health in adult life. Traumatic stress reactions from this formative time in our lives might be more profound than any other event or experience we will face during adulthood – both good and bad.
Kid need secure attachment
When kids are children, they depend upon adults to provide safety, attunement, connection, and mirroring. Secure attachment makes them feel safe enough to take risks to explore their world AND have a safe place to return. Secure attachment protects young children from traumatic stress.
Child trauma takes many forms
Potentially traumatic events are not only physical abuse. Traumatic stress symptoms can come from medical trauma, traumatic experiences such as emotional abuse, neglect, mental health issues from parents, and even physical injury.
Interpersonal trauma happens from domestic violence, sexual abuse, or any traumatic event. Child trauma survivors can look very different from each other and have different psychological and physiological responses. It’s not only overt child abuse that creates childhood trauma. Physical abuse, community violence, sexual abuse, and even daily life impact a child.
Traumatic Stress can be passed down generationally
Young children have experiences that shape how they see the world, impacting beliefs, self-image, psychology, biology, mental health, and what will be possible moving forward. Unfortunately, trauma and traumatic experiences can get passed down from one generation to the next, which is why it’s so crucial that you work on healing yourself.
Unborn babies can suffer from developmental trauma when;
-a mother struggles with substance abuse during pregnancy (including just having a few drinks).
-Pregnancy accompanied by violent relationships between parents creates more stress in utero for the baby (intimate partner violence.)
– Mothers who suffer too much debilitating anxiety could pass this trait on to their babies. Even though babies are too young to remember, the experience is in their psychobiology.
-Babies separated from birth parents
-Children that go through extensive medical procedures
-Having parents that are emotionally neglectful and don’t attune and mirror their kids enough
-Being raised in an unsafe environment (including emotionally)
-Being raised in an unsafe environment and then moving to a safe environment
-Adverse childhood experiences
-Physical or sexual abuse
-A parent dies or leaves the family (abandonment)
-Being the victim of bullying
-Inheriting parents developmental trauma
-A parent abuses substances
-Experiencing community violence including racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia, or anti-semitism
-A parent struggles with mental illness
-Physical health issues in older children
Children can fall through the cracks
The risk factor these events cause impact those that suffer from childhood trauma and traumatic events. Human services may get involved, but more often do not. Child welfare can be a great resource; however, mental health services administration is often not involved soon enough. Many children fall through the cracks in the system and later experience mental health problems because of traumatic experiences.
Safe adults buffer adversity
When you were a baby, did someone give loving care to your needs? If neglect or abuse occurs in the first few years of life, this impacts how memories are stored implicitly, and a child has already experienced trauma. The absence of care can create an experience of not feeling safe and disconnection to self and others. However, when safe adults are present, they may buffer early adversity.
2. What is childhood trauma, and how it affects your brain.
Developmental trauma happens chronically over time in critical early relationships resulting in the loss. Developmental trauma disorder results from significant and chronic misattunement from caregivers that is often prolonged, familiar, without a distinct beginning and end, and feeling that it’ll always be like this (chronic.). It shapes the development of one’s life as an individual response to life experiences based on the past (frozen in time). These experiences of misattunement engender:
- efforts to ward off shame and guilt and emotions that come with it
- an unstable core self
(Defined by Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) & Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) and Dr. Laurence Heller.)
Trauma is not the event that happened, and the event may be seemingly minor, and trauma is the effect the event has on your psychobiology and brain.
Childhood traumas impact the three areas of the brain.
-Brainstem (primitive brain) impacting sensory-motor input and survival.
-Midbrain and limbic area impacting attachment and emotional development
-Cortical brain impacts thinking, learning, inhibiting, and language.
The brainstem is responsible for our arousal, fight or flight response, and this brain area also contains the “primitive” part that controls autonomic functions such as breathing and heart rate. When a person has experienced chronic developmental trauma early in life, this area can become over-activated by even minor stressors later on in life.
The midbrain and limbic area is responsible for our emotions, memories, and motivation. This area also helps to regulate the stress response in the brainstem. When a person has experienced chronic developmental trauma early in life, this area can become under-activated leading to problems with regulating emotions and memory.
The cortex is responsible for higher level thinking such as abstract thought, organizing thoughts, and planning. This area can become impaired when a person has experienced chronic developmental trauma early in life.
When you have experienced childhood traumas, it becomes difficult to focus on the task at hand or think straight. You may feel like you are constantly in danger, and your brain is trying to protect you.
3. The impact of childhood traumas on adults
When childhood traumas are unresolved, many kids grow up to experience complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Some may end up in the juvenile justice systems but others may experience substance abuse and mental health problems. They may struggle in many areas and feel like they cannot form healthy relationships with those around them. They miss out on the nurturing and structure that would help in such a situation and don’t know how to connect authentically when things go wrong due to their lack of safety while growing up. Family members may not be aware of what is happening due to their childhood trauma.
Childhood Trauma as an adult
As adults, here are some ways unresolved childhood traumas play out in life (from NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM)).
-Disturbed attachment patterns
-Complex disruptions of affect regulation
-Rapid behavioral regressions & shifts in emotional states
-Failure to achieve developmental competencies
-Loss of autonomous strivings
-Chronic feelings of ineffectiveness
-Self-hatred and self-blame
-Aggressive behavior against self and others
-Altered schemas of the world
-Anticipatory behavior and traumatic expectations
-Lack of awareness of danger with self-endangering behaviors
-Loss of bodily regulation in areas of sleep, food, and self-care
-Multiple somatic problems – e.g., GI issues, migraines, pain
I’ve found that it can be difficult for people with childhood trauma to develop a sense of self because they often lack the mirroring and attunement needed during childhood, which creates negative emotions and emotionally painful experiences around identity formation. It is hard when you only have one identity-the one your trauma created!
4. How to heal from your traumatic past
Even though it may seem like we are injured for life, the truth is our childhood traumas can be healed with a caring therapist trained in treating complex PTSD resulting from childhood traumas. We all are designed to move towards healing, wholeness, and connection, and it’s only a matter of removing the roadblocks.
The therapy NARM (NeuroAffective Relational Model) can be very effective for complex trauma resulting from childhood traumas.
NARM is a somatic approach to working with trauma. It understands how our earliest relationships affect the development of a sense of self. It helps us see that adaptations that may have been necessary for survival early injuries are now expressed through current life situations.
NARM addresses attachment, relational, developmental, and complex trauma. The sessions incorporate elements of identity, emotions, behavior, and relationships. Body mindfulness, relationships, the nervous system, organization, and working in the present are components of this model to help you better connect to your authentic self, others, your aliveness, and what you want for your life.
For those who have been through traumatic experiences, finding the right therapist can be difficult. You need to ask yourself: Is this person qualified? What kind of experience do they specialize in treating complex traumas like mine? Do I feel safe with this person? Listen to your gut as you navigate the road ahead. Your emotions are information from your body communicating to you what you need.
5. The importance of self-compassion and self-love in healing from trauma
It may be hard to learn how to feel positive about yourself when your past is so painful. But healing from the trauma and moving forward in life requires loving ourselves again, finding safe people to be our authentic selves with and experience co-regulation, and learning secure functioning.
Self-compassion and self-love are essential in the healing process. It is impossible to heal if we do not have compassion for ourselves and see our intrinsic value. This means accepting all aspects of who we are, even the parts we don’t like.
Developing a healthy sense of self also requires co-regulation. Co-regulation is the ability to attune and synchronize our nervous systems with others. This happens when we feel seen, heard, and held in an emotionally safe space. When we can regulate our emotions through another person, it helps us calm down and feel more secure.
Lastly, to heal, we need to develop a sense of secure functioning. This means feeling safe and trusting others, as well as ourselves. We need to feel that we are not alone in the world and that people can be counted on to help us when we are struggling.
The road ahead
When we can unconditionally accept ourselves, it opens up the possibility for change and growth.
I hope this blog post has helped you understand a little more about the science of childhood trauma and how it is impacting your life. If you want to learn even more, follow me on Instagram @drnicolemcguffin or join my email list at https://www.drnicolemcguffin.com. I treat complex trauma, attachment, and relationship trauma utilizing NARM (NeuroAffective Relational Model). To learn more, please visit https://www.narmtraininginstitute.com, or for a great read, check out Healing Developmental Trauma by Dr. Laurence Heller and Dr. Aline LaPierre.