Life is full of both positive and negative experiences. Some negative experiences can be more distressing than others, especially during childhood. This often leads to childhood trauma. Unfortunately, childhood trauma may not resolve itself by the time children grow up. It can be quite common for signs of childhood trauma to surface in adulthood. Here, we’ll talk about what these signs are and, more importantly, how to start the healing process.
What is Childhood Trauma?
Before going into more detail on how childhood trauma affects adults, it is essential to understand what childhood trauma is.
Simply put, childhood trauma is a term used to describe the effect of experiencing distressing or life-threatening events during one’s childhood or adolescent years. This causes feelings of helplessness, stress, and being overwhelmed. Although negative experiences can occur at any time, they may not affect people in the same way. This is why not all events have a traumatic impact.
How Does Childhood Trauma Show Up in Adulthood?
As children mature through adolescence and reach adulthood, they learn important skills such as problem-solving, nurturing relationships, and maintaining emotional stability. These abilities may be compromised when an individual has experienced trauma.
Childhood trauma manifests in thinking patterns and behaviors that can hinder an individual from living a healthy life. Such patterns in their social relationships, individual habits, and how they navigate and direct their lives. Childhood trauma that continues on into adulthood can even be dangerous for the individual. Some research has shown that people with childhood trauma have an increased risk for suicide [*].
What are the Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults?
Identifying the symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood is the first step in treating it effectively. Here are some things to look out for if you think you know someone who may be experiencing childhood trauma:
Being hyperaware or seeming on edge all the time are signs of trauma in adults. These individuals often talk about not being able to relax and expecting to be blamed, attacked, or criticized at any moment. They may also express difficulty in trusting partners or other loved ones.
Difficulty in relationships
Common symptoms of childhood trauma also include difficulties in relationships. Trauma alters the way a person is able to connect with other people, and this usually appears as a lack of self-worth and feelings of shame. For some people, this might lead to the development of unhealthy attachment styles with unsuitable partners. Others may avoid relationships altogether.
Problems with emotional processing
Childhood trauma symptoms may also manifest as problems with emotional processing. Healthy emotional processing means being able to attach the correct emotional response to a certain external stimulus. However, childhood trauma makes forming such connections difficult. As an adult, it may be just as challenging to respond appropriately to different emotional experiences. Some adults may get moody or feel an overwhelming amount of anxiety.
Depression, anxiety, and mood issues
Depression, anxiety, and mood problems may also indicate that a person has gone through childhood trauma. Some adults feel intense feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, which leads to further struggles in life as they feel very little joy or motivation. Others might be stuck on high alert, creating a continuous loop of anxiety and worry.
Addiction and substance abuse
Coping with childhood trauma and managing stressful situations in adulthood can be difficult. As a result, people may turn to food, alcohol, or drugs to cope. They rely on these substances to help them deal with strong emotional responses to people or situations that may have triggered them.
Developing chronic illnesses
Research has shown that long-term diseases like diabetes, asthma, obesity, and certain allergies were strongly associated with childhood trauma [*]. This is partially due to constant exposure from stress hormones that are induced by traumatic experiences, leading to greater health risks.
Healing the Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults
Unresolved trauma from childhood can feel like it is taking over your life. While the road to recovery may take some time, it is possible to heal the signs of childhood trauma in adults. Here are some ways in which healing can being for such individuals:
- Rather than avoiding the trauma, acknowledging and recognizing it for what it is can prevent minimizing the impact of the event that often leads to feelings of guilt or self-blame. Healing can only begin by acknowledging the traumatic event and remembering that you were not responsible for it.
- Feelings of helplessness are common in adults with childhood trauma. The pain from trauma can make one feel and act like a perpetual victim, which is why it is important for adults to reclaim control over their lives. This involves learning to let go of the past and focusing on the present.
- Unhealed childhood trauma worsens when a person isolates themselves and rejects support. To heal, it is crucial to connect with others by maintaining relationships and depending on the right support systems. Whether it’s a trusted family member, friend, or counselor, healing trauma is a task that is rarely undertaken alone.
- Healing from trauma also depends on how well you can cope with the stress that is usually part of the process. This is only possible when one is in good health, so take care of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Be sure to eat well, get plenty of exercise, and know when to rest. Staying away from alcohol and drugs is also very helpful in this regard.
- Because trauma is so complex, you may need the help of a professional to deal with it. Therapists may take several approaches, from trauma-informed therapy to dialectical behavioral therapy or brainspotting therapy. Others may supplement therapy sessions with simple tools like trauma worksheets to guide you and facilitate the process. Talk to your doctor to see which method works best for you and your needs.
The Bottom Line
Realizing that you’ve experienced childhood trauma and are dealing with it in your adult life can be difficult to accept. However, you are never too old to seek help for something that you had no control over as a child. You can always work towards the path of healing and progress whenever you are ready. No matter how trauma may make us think that we are victims, it is possible to take charge of our lives with the help of our loved ones and dedicated professionals.
- Ihme H, Olié E, Courtet P, et al. Childhood trauma increases vulnerability to attempt suicide in adulthood through avoidant attachment. August 2022.
- Kascakova N, Petrikova M, Furstova J, et al. Associations of childhood trauma with long-term diseases and alcohol and nicotine use disorders in Czech and Slovak representative samples. 19 September 2022.