Sometimes, you may feel that something about you just isn’t quite right. You might find yourself responding to certain people, places, or experiences in ways that you don’t understand. This can be an unsettling feeling. You wonder whether something happened to cause it. It might be possible that these are signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults.
Experiencing trauma as a child is incredibly difficult. Some people respond by having their brains push traumatizing memories deep into their unconscious as a coping mechanism. However, this repression of childhood trauma is not a foolproof solution and can cause issues later on in life.
Here, we’ll talk about everything related to signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults and how to heal from them.
Childhood Trauma and Repressed Memories
Childhood trauma happens when one or more negative experiences affect children and cause a lasting impact. More specifically, childhood trauma results from the experience of distressing or life-threatening events during childhood or adolescence. It is important to note that while negative experiences can happen to anyone at any time, not all events will have a traumatic impact.
Starting from childhood and all through our lifetimes, our brains process and store memories. Over time, the brain decides which memories should be kept, discarded, suppressed, or even repressed. Stress and fear can cause your brain to keep vivid memories of the experience to protect you later in life. However, traumatic experiences can be so severe that the brain pushes memories associated with the event aside, effectively repressing them to allow a child to cope and move forward in adulthood.
Some studies have found that there are trauma-related dissociative symptoms that can be supported by brain network connectivity [*]. Other research has also supported that some types of childhood trauma have caused different levels of memory repression than others [*]. It is also worth noting that much more research is still being done on this aspect of trauma.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
Negative events called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can happen from ages 0 to 17. These are potentially traumatic events and are divided into three categories: neglect, abuse, and household challenges. Some examples of ACEs are the following:
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Physical or emotional neglect
- Mental illness of a family member
- Domestic violence
- Substance abuse by a family member
- Having a family member go to prison
These examples are by no means an exhaustive list of adverse experiences that can occur. There are many other ACEs that can lead to repressed trauma that can impact an adult’s health and well-being.
ACEs are often linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance abuse during adolescence and adulthood [*]. ACEs can also affect one’s education, job opportunities, and learning potential. Fortunately, it is possible to prevent ACEs.
Signs of Repressed Childhood Trauma in Adults
Repressed memories and symptoms of childhood trauma in adults can manifest in many different ways. Here are some of the most common signs of childhood trauma in adults to look out for:
Many individuals who have gone through childhood trauma tend to develop trust issues that continue to affect their relationships during their adult years. People who were neglected, abused, betrayed, or abandoned often expect others to repeat these very same patterns [*]. This results in the avoidance of pursuing new relationships, isolating oneself, developing hyper-independence, or pushing away loved ones. Trust issues can negatively impact a person’s closest connections.
Difficulty regulating emotions
People who experienced childhood trauma may also have difficulty regulating emotions. They may suffer from extreme emotional shifts or mood swings. Although controlling one’s emotions is difficult even for mentally healthy individuals, those who struggle with unhealed repressed trauma are at an even greater disadvantage. Such people may find themselves irrationally angry at others for no reason. Others may notice that the little things cause them to be upset. This may be a sign that a repressed memory is being triggered.
Inability to cope with change
It is normal for anybody to experience stress when pushed outside of their comfort zone. However, it becomes concerning when changes trigger extreme emotional shifts that interfere with one’s daily life and relationships.
Black-and-white thinking is another sign of unresolved childhood trauma. It is a cognitive distortion that simplifies difficult or stressful events, for instance, by labeling things or people as either good or bad. This type of thinking is also a defense mechanism that may be used to make quick decisions during times of high stress. If you find yourself thinking this way often, then it may be helpful to use a worksheet on walking the middle path to think dialectically instead of in extremes.
Attachment and/or abandonment issues
Various ACEs can result in an intense fear of abandonment. This may appear as an adult who has difficulty leaving abusive or non-reciprocal relationships. It may also manifest as a person who always tries to please everyone. When experiencing trauma at such a young age, it can disturb the brain’s development, so much so that as adults we grow attached to others more quickly and experience severe emotional distress when they leave.
Low self-esteem is another sign that an adult may be facing repressed childhood trauma. It can sometimes be difficult to identify, but it often appears as a fear of being judged, setting poor boundaries, or a lack of self-worth. People with low self-esteem may also experience frustration, social anxiety, and a general sense of distrust.
Self-esteem issues fall into one of two categories: self-underestimation and self-overestimation. Children who were held to extremely high standards or made to feel disposable may suffer from self-underestimation as adults. This also commonly occurs in children who acted as caregivers in place of their neglectful caretakers. They set aside their own needs to serve others.
Having childish reactions often is another sign that you may be dealing with repressed childhood trauma as an adult. Showing stubbornness, having outbursts that are difficult to control, and speaking or acting in childlike ways are all indicative of childish behavior. You may have repressed childhood trauma if regressive emotional outbursts are common reactions to things not going your way. This often requires therapeutic interventions with a professional specializing in trauma to help you learn more effective coping mechanisms.
How to Treat Signs of Repressed Trauma in Adults
Treating signs of repressed trauma in adults is possible. Some solutions can be done on your own while others may require the help of a licensed professional.
If you choose to start with treatments that you can do on your own, then try healthy activities such as journaling, yoga, and meditation. Specifically, stream-of-consciousness journaling allows you to express your thoughts in an unfiltered manner, without the worry of judgment or having to make sense. It can be helpful to supplement your journaling with worksheets designed to process trauma. You can also practice mindfulness, attend support groups, and self-learn coping strategies that work for you.
Working with a professional is highly recommended as well. Therapy is an extremely valuable tool in working through repressed trauma. There are several types of therapy that can help individuals process their traumatic experiences:
Behavioral Therapy - Behavioral therapy allows you to express and process your emotions or experiences in a safe place to decrease the negative effect they have on your life. The goal of this type of therapy is to identify destructive thoughts and behaviors and correct them, rather than just letting them play out automatically.
Exposure Therapy - A subset of behavioral therapy, exposure therapy focuses on letting a person confront their fears. It may include techniques like desensitization, where someone is gradually exposed to increasingly fearful situations while simultaneously learning how to replace their fear with relaxation.
Cognitive Processing Therapy - Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is another specific type of behavioral therapy that allows patients to restructure their beliefs related to the trauma. This type of therapy can be done individually or structured in a group. CPT may not help one completely resolve the trauma, but it can aid in feeling safer, even when remembering the traumatic event.
When to Seek Professional Help
Letting time pass isn’t always the key to resolving repressed and unresolved childhood trauma. If the signs of repressed childhood trauma listed above continue to interfere with your daily functioning and relationships, then it may be time to seek the help of a professional.
Fortunately, seeking treatment like therapy can help significantly. Choosing the right therapist who specializes in trauma-informed therapy is especially important here.
The Bottom Line
Repressed childhood trauma can cause a number of difficulties in adulthood, including problems with self-esteem, emotional outbursts, and challenges in relationships. People who have experienced trauma this way may end up repressing details of certain memories or emotions associated with the traumatic events as a way to cope.
It can be hard to be a trauma survivor. But the good news is that there are ways to get better. Given time, the right kind of treatment, and with the support of a compassionate and qualified professional, you may find yourself on the road to recovery.
- Lebois L, Li M, Baker J, et al. Large-Scale Functional Brain Network Architecture Changes Associated With Trauma-Related Dissociation. 25 September 2020.
- Epstein M and Bottoms B. Explaining the Forgetting and Recovery of Abuse and Trauma Memories: Possible Mechanisms. 25 July 2016.
- Chang X, Jiang X, Mkandarwire T, et al. Associations between adverse childhood experiences and health outcomes in adults aged 18–59 years. 7 February 2019.
- Van der Kolk, B. The compulsion to repeat the trauma. Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. June 1989.