Many don’t realize that childhood trauma is a lot more common than many may think. In a study conducted on 0-6-year olds, over half had experienced severe stressors in their short lives. As I did my research on childhood trauma to write this article I made an important discovery about myself. The trauma from my childhood was triggered by something else than I had initially thought.
When I was 4,5 years old my grandfather tragically passed away while on vacation abroad. He was 50 years of age at the time. I never realized until now very recently that all my earliest childhood memories involve him. The scent of bacon and baked beans always take me there, the big brown armchair at my grandparents where he’d always sit and watch TV. Those clothespins we’d pretend were crocodiles and “attacked” my grandmother with, and the chewing gum he’d always sneak me. My first bike – a pink and white beauty – was gifted to me by him and I still got vivid memories of him teaching me how to ride it. It didn’t even occur to me until recently how important to me he really was. People, including myself, just assumed I was too young to remember, too young to understand. The truth is though that children understand a lot more than what many adults seem to think is the case.
As a young child, losing an important person in your life, you need support, and a place to feel safe and secure so you can work through the emotions in a healthy way. The opposite happened for me. I don’t want to go into detail out of respect for my family, but I lost two close family members that day. My mother, who had lost her father, was never the same again. What followed was traumatic to me, it was violent and very self-destructive at times. I saw things no child should ever have to see. I strongly believe that this is the root to so many of my mental health issues. The chaotic environment I grew up in, and the loss of somebody so close to me, combined with an already anxious personality. My grandfather was definitely a safety person to me, somebody who was often mistaken for my dad (he was only 46 at the time of my birth) as I spent so much time at my grandparents as a child. Over the years I always considered myself lucky to still have memories of him, something my sister never had since she was too young to remember. But now I wonder, maybe she’s the lucky one to not know the pain of the loss. But at the same time she’ll never know the love and security I felt, either. It’s a bit of a two edged sword.
The most common signs and symptoms of unresolved childhood trauma are:
1. Anxiety or panic attacks that occur in situations most people would consider normal
2. Feelings of shame. Feelings of being worthless, bad and without importance
3. Chronic or ongoing depression
4. Practising avoidance of people, emotions, things or places related to the traumatic event
5. Nightmares, flashbacks and body memories
6. Eating disorders and addictions in an attempt to escape or numb emotions of negative nature
7. Problems sleeping such as trouble going to sleep or staying asleep
8. Suffering from feelings of detachment, with other words – feeling “dead inside”
9. Dissociation as a real disconnect in situations and conversations
10. Suicidal thoughts or actions
11.Hypervigilance, a constant feeling of being on guard
12. Uncontrollable anger
13. Self-harm and cutting
14. Not being able to tolerate conflicts
15. Unexplained or irrational fears of people, things or places
Why it’s so hard to overcome childhood trauma
Firstly, what makes it so hard to overcome childhood trauma is that children lack the frame of reference. They come to see what is happening as normal, since it’s all they’ve ever known. This is especially true if the source to the stress is a caregiver. In many cases it requires exposure to healthy families before they can see how damaged their childhood really was. Sadly, it gets tougher to heal, the longer you wait.
Another factor is that the damage may be biological. Trauma can alter and change how certain genes are expressed. A study at Brown University in 2012 shows that childhood trauma such as the loss of a parent or abuse can actually impact the programming of the genes that regulate stress. This puts the person in a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression A study in 2013 have also linked trauma-induced brain changes to diminished ability to handle negative impulses.
Also, in order to overcome certain issues it means remembering them. This is a really tough one for me personally. I’ve been crying throughout writing this article because I’ve started to remember things I had supressed or tried to ignore. Revisiting your past can be a very painful experience. Even if you’re willing to try, it may be impossible to sort out the mess of impressions from childhood. It’s tough to eliminate pain when the source of it can’t be pinpointed and all you’re left with is floating anxiety. Sometimes it’s also difficult to get proper closure even if you decide to remember and heal. Those responsible for the trauma may no longer be alive.
Many adults who has experienced childhood trauma also close their emotions off. That’s something I tend to do, myself, a lot too. If caring becomes too dangerous for the well-being of the child they numb themselves of emotions. This tend to damage the ability to build healthy relationships, as well complicate any attempts at healing since the motions needed for healing are closed off too.
So what can you do?
The first step is to allow yourself to get close to people. Your childhood traumas likely caused you to spend a lare amount of energy on survival, so it’s likely you find it difficult, challenging or maybe even scary to get close to other people. Many who experienced early, ongoing traumas are more prone to chronically isolate themselves as adults. The best thing you can do is to challenge this behavioural mechanism and instead allow yourself to get close to others, and in turn allow them to see you as you are. A small handful of friends is enough and allow them to really see you and love you.
The next step is to take good care of yourself. Both physically and emotionally. Sufferers of childhood trauma oftentimes feel subconsciously like they don’t deserve love and care. Many have low energy and just fall down a downward spiral of rejection and isolation. You deserve to be treated the same way you would treat a loved one. With love and care.
Another thing to look at are your defence mechanisms. The way your life is today, do you really need the old defence mechanisms you’re used to, to keep yourself safe? Maybe you’ve told yourself that people can’t be trusted so you’ve became super self-reliant or decided to shut people out, for instance. The first step to heal the old pain is to recognize the things you are currently doing as a result of childhood trauma and see how you can turn them around.
The pain may never fully go away
I don’t think the pain I feel will ever fully go away in my case. Today made that clear to me. I’ve been tearing up time after time throughout the writing process which means it’s still very raw 20+ years later. To this day I still refuse to visit the country where my grandfather died. I just can’t bring myself to do it although I’ve been offered to go several times. Certain family members are strong triggers as well. I won’t give up though. Time heal all wounds, they said.