Often the reason many clients come to psychological therapy is anxiety and depression. It may be that they have managed to cope with the symptoms for many years and perhaps even tried some short-term counselling. Then some sudden changes in either personal circumstances or in the family unit trigger a strong stress response and bring up painful feelings and memories of childhood. Life suddenly becomes overbearing and difficult to cope with. Once the person starts telling their life story, childhood trauma and/or emotional neglect are uncovered. When coping strategies learnt over the years have failed, the person is lost without knowing how to cope. Do you find yourself in that position?
Childhood trauma affects a large number of adults struggling in their everyday lives. You may have experienced, for example, loss of a parental figure, parental separation and no contact with one parent, parental substance abuse or mental health problems, bullying, being sent to a boarding school at a young age, your primary caregiver not being emotionally in tune with your emotional needs, witnessing domestic violence, or emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect. Previously, I have written about childhood emotional neglect (CEN) on its own. You can read about it here.
I see childhood trauma and emotional neglect through the eyes of an inner child, who is suffering. This three-part blog series introduces the impact of childhood trauma on adult well-being, how our body and brain react to (childhood) trauma and how the compassionate mind approach can help to heal internal wounds (Gilbert, 2009).
Symptoms related to childhood trauma
If you have experienced childhood trauma, the degree to which you are affected by your childhood experiences varies and depends on multiple factors, such as your style of attachment with your primary caregiver (secure, insecure-ambivalent, insecure-anxious, or disorganised), your support systems and whether you have experienced a single traumatic event or multiple or severe traumatising events or neglect. Here are some symptoms listed that may be linked to your childhood experiences:
- Low mood and depression
- Relationship difficulties (e.g. emotional and/or physical intimacy, fear of commitment – read my blog post on fear of rejection killing your relationship here)
- Body image related difficulties (read a post on improving your body image here)
- Problematic eating patterns
- Substance misuse
- Feelings of isolation
- Sadness and grief
- Shame and guilt – Read my post on Steps to building shame resilience here and download FREE Building Shame Resilience worksheet here.
- Helplessness and powerlessness
- Feeling numb
Childhood experiences leave a significant stamp on our lives and years after the feelings relating to the event(s) or experiences can hold us back from living our life to the full potential.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD
In addition to the symptoms listed above, if you have experienced severe childhood trauma, you may have developed symptoms linked to a PTSD, which is characterised by:
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event(s) (e.g. having flashbacks, nightmares, repetitive and distressing images or sensations, and physical sensations including sweating, pain, trembling and nausea )
- Avoiding any triggers that might be linked to the traumatic event(s) and emotional numbing, such as avoiding talking about distressing events and feelings (you may be trying to compartmentalise your feelings in an attempt to forget them)
- Hyper-arousal and feeling on edge, e.g. struggling with relaxation, feeling irritable, sleeping difficulties, difficulty to concentrate and having angry outbursts
A child who has experienced multiples traumas in their life, severe abuse or neglect by their early caregiver and/or has ongoing difficulties may have developed complex PTSD. Research suggests that severe early trauma may impact brain development, cognitive abilities, emotion regulation, behaviour, sense of self and ability to form relationships, physical health, and result in dissociation (mentally separating oneself from the emotional experience). You can learn about it more here (NCTSN)
Living with the symptoms of PTSD can be debilitating. If you have experienced multiple traumas in your life, living with the emotional, psychological and potentially physical consequences can be very hard, especially if you are frequently reminded of the incidents and the memories. People are different and they have different resources for coping with difficult life events. So what matters is how you are coping and experience the symptoms.
In the next post, I will offer some suggestions for grounding techniques that can help with managing if you are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, flashbacks or memories.
If you have been impacted by childhood trauma or any kind, it is important that you seek support from those that are close to you and practice good self-care. If you are struggling, professional help can be beneficial for not only addressing your symptoms but also the underlying cause of your symptoms.
The second part of the blog series talks about how our body and brain react to the traumatic events and how normal and trauma-related memories differ. The third part (read here) introduces the compassionate mind approach to healing your internal wounds. If you would like to know more and be updated of my future posts, please sign up for my newsletter on the bottom of the blog page.
Dr Mari Kovanen, CPsychol, is a Counselling Psychologist with a specialist interest in childhood trauma & emotional neglect and relationships. She is in private practice in Central London and Reigate, Surrey. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Gilbert, P. (2009). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in psychiatric treatment, 15, 199-208.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network www.nctsn.org