Many children are exposed to traumatic events at some point in their lives, with research stating that as many as 61% of adults have experienced at least one type of adverse childhood experience, and nearly 1 in 6 have experienced 4 or more adverse childhood experiences. Another study claims that number could be even higher with potentially 78% of children reporting more than 1 traumatic experience before the age of 5.
Experiencing trauma as a child can have a profound impact on adulthood, with factors such as emotional regulation, consciousness, memory, distorted perceptions of abuse, relationship formation, and self-esteem all being negatively affected by adverse childhood experiences. Regardless of the type of trauma, if left untreated, it can wreak havoc in adulthood in a variety of ways.
A 2016 research study found that the scars of childhood trauma impact an adult’s ability to process and act on information quickly and accurately, resulting in impulsive and harmful decision making. Another study found that the way trauma impacts the structure of the brain can make clinical depression more severe and more likely to return. Not only can childhood trauma make adult life more difficult to live, one study even found that this trauma can cut years off an individual’s life due to the health problems created by harmful brain and nervous system development. Because of the severely negative impacts trauma can have, it’s essential to learn about what childhood trauma is and how to seek treatment as adults.
What is childhood trauma?
There are many different experiences that can constitute childhood trauma. In some cases trauma can occur from a single event experienced by a child that threatens their life or their bodily integrity. Examples of single event trauma may include physical or sexual abuse, car accidents, natural disasters, or a medical trauma. Witnessing a traumatic event that threatens the life of a loved one can also constitute trauma. The following is a list of possible adverse childhood experiences that could result in trauma:
– Experiencing violence, abuse or neglect
– Witnessing violence in the home or community
– Having a family member attempt or die by suicide
– Military family-related stressors such as deployment, parental loss, or injury
– Growing up in house with substance misuse
– Growing up in a house with mental health problems
– Experiencing instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison
Trauma can also be experienced as an ongoing stress, such as living in a dangerous neighborhood or being the victim of bullying, and this is known as complex trauma. Complex trauma is a subtle, slow burn type of negative childhood experience that can impact someone just as much as single-event trauma. This type of trauma may appear as “snapshots” from childhood, such as waiting at the window for an often-absent parent to return home. Complex trauma can appear as a general feeling of detachment or distrust and is just as much about what didn’t happen in their childhood as what did.
For children who are exposed to traumatic experiences, some develop traumatic stress that can impact them for years to come. Traumatic stress can result in a variety of responses including intense and ongoing emotional upset, depressive symptoms, anxiety, behavioral changes, difficulty self-regulating, regression of skills, academic difficulties, difficulty sleeping and eating, and physical symptoms such as aches and pains. Without treatment, childhood trauma can affect the brain and nervous system and result in long-term negative impacts into adulthood.
How childhood trauma influences the way we do things as adults
Childhood trauma, when left untreated, impacts the way that adults behave as well as what they believe. One common example of this is repetition compulsion. This phenomenon, experienced by trauma survivors, causes a person to repeat a traumatic event and its circumstances over and over again. This can include reenacting the event in their adult lives or putting oneself in a situation where it is likely to occur again. Psychiatrist and researcher Bessel van der Kolk explains that this occurs as a direct impact of experienced trauma but that these reenactments are rarely consciously understood by the individual as their past trauma. This phenomenon can also explain why young adults will seek out relationships and situations that from the outside seem obviously unhealthy and risky.
Experiencing trauma as a child can be harmful to a person’s relationship with their own sexuality. When a child grows up in a safe, loving environment, they are able to learn about their bodies and sexuality in an appropriate, healthy way. Without support or positive role models for relationships, learning about sexuality can lead to negative outcomes. One study found that the more adverse childhood experiences someone had, the more likely they were to have an STD. The researchers concluded that those who had experienced trauma were more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors than those who had not. Beyond risky behaviors, trauma can impact an individual’s ability to seek out love and relationships. They may avoid closeness with others because they feel too flawed to accept external love.
When a person experiences childhood trauma, their understanding of time and reality can become distorted, which can result in gaps for their past and their future. One study found that those with significant childhood trauma were six times as likely to have gaps in their childhood memories as those without trauma. This effect was also found to impact forward-thinking, and an inability to think toward the future can be associated with depression and result in delinquent, dangerous behavior. Even the present can appear distorted to those who have experienced trauma. This dissociation can feel like an out-of-body experience which can manifest in insensitivity to pain, loss of muscle control, or an inability to swallow.
Childhood trauma can also have staggering impacts on physical health in adults in addition to the psychological scars. A 2014 study found that a history of adverse childhood experiences was associated with a higher rate of cancer diagnosis and that this link is due to an increased likelihood of obesity and problematic substance use. New research is also finding that there is a correlation between childhood trauma and other diseases such as heart, liver, and lung disease as well as autoimmune disease and chronic headaches. Due to all the possible negative lifelong consequences of experiencing trauma, it’s crucial to start receiving treatment as soon as possible to mitigate these effects.
Treatments available for past childhood trauma
Seeking treatment as an adult for childhood trauma can result in immediate rewards as well as long term gains such as identifying triggers, developing coping mechanisms, and decreasing the symptoms of traumatic stress. There are many different types of treatment that can be beneficial in treating trauma.
Cognitive processing therapy is often the first choice when treating PTSD and the long term effects of childhood trauma in adults. This type of treatment typically involves education around PTSD thoughts and emotions followed by formal processing of the trauma and skill development to address unhelpful thinking. Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy is also frequently used and is similar to CPT. TF-CBT incorporates trauma-sensitive interventions with cognitive behavioral techniques and family support that relies on the participation of trusted parents in the treatment process.
Another popular method of treating trauma is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. EMDR uses repetitive eye movements to re-pattern memories from a trauma. Using 8 phases including history, preparation, assessment, treatment, and evaluation, research shows that EMDR is an empirically validated treatment to help address memories related to adverse childhood experiences.
For those who have been exposed to multiple traumatic events, narrative exposure therapy is often used. This intervention focuses on embedding trauma exposure into an autobiographical context known as a timeline. Another option is prolonged exposure therapy where therapists help individuals confront trauma-related memories, fears, feelings, and situations.
If you have been dealing with unprocessed childhood trauma and are suffering from its many impacts, Momentum can help get you on the path to success.
Momentum can help
Momentum is an adventure-based wilderness therapy program that offers 18-25 year olds a pathway to successfully transition into adulthood. We provide the people, place, and experiences that allow young adults to gain insight, practice healthy independence, realign goals, and learn new tools needed for adulthood.
We offer exciting adventure programming, comprehensive clinical services, engaging academic seminars and social interactions with peers to create life-changing opportunities.
At Momentum we use innovative techniques and different therapeutic modalities to help our young adults overcome past challenges and create success. Brainspotting Therapy is one of the techniques we implement where we do not rely on verbal communication to assess and overcome past trauma. For more information, please call (828) 457-8576.