Trauma doesn’t just go away. The memories may fade, but that does not mean that there are not lasting impacts on your life when you have experienced childhood trauma. Traumas experienced in childhood can range from sexual abuse, molestation, rape, physical abuse, family violence, dating violence, violent crimes, natural disasters, exposure to war and even being raised in homes where addiction is present. As children, our minds adapt to our world and we learn to function in high stress environments where our basic needs may not be met. As a child, you may not recognize the events you go through as traumatic and you may not experience symptoms until later in adulthood. One way to see how these traumas are currently impacting you is by looking at some of the characteristics you display in you daily life. This will be a multi-part blog entry in which I will cover a few of the characteristics each post. To begin we are going to look at learned helplessness, depression, anxiety and emotional constriction.
Characteristics of Adults Who Experienced Trauma in Childhood
⦁ Learned Helplessness: This is when a person no longer feels that they can impact or change what is happening in their world. This person may seem to “give up” and feel helpless to enact change in their world. Growing up in trauma you may have felt helpless to change your situation, to control others around you or to even protect yourself and others. These feelings can lead to the belief that you are helpless and unable to improve your current world. To help with this, you must first recognize what you have within your control: you, your thoughts, your feelings and your actions. Developing trust in yourself helps to build an internal sense of control which aides in alleviating helplessness.
⦁ Depression: When emotions are not expressed, they can become internalized and lead to feeling flat, agitated, anxious, defensive, anger and sadness. Feeling this way over a period of time can result in depression, decreased motivation and feeling “stuck.” Growing up in traumatic environments you may not have had the opportunity to safely express or explore your emotions and this can become an unhealthy pattern of functioning which can impact your ability to interact with others and feel good about yourself. To help with this you have to work to re-connect with how you feel in a safe environment as well as learn how to appropriately cope with these feelings.
⦁ Anxiety: This can look like worries and feelings of lack of control which comes out in feeling “keyed up,” on guard, having racing thoughts, irrational beliefs of an impending doom and with no place to pin these thoughts down, they can begin to project into phobias, sleep disturbances and hypervigilance. Growing up in an environment where you may have been walking on eggshells and attempting to keep the peace can lead to feeling that you must not “rock the boat” or something bad will happen. The key with anxiety is the lack of control that is felt, so to help we need to look at what is within your control and how to identify and challenge the unhelpful thinking patterns that contribute to your anxiety.
⦁ Emotional Constriction: This is a natural defense against emotional pain where the person who has experienced trauma shuts down or feels numbness; the ability to have a full range of emotions are restricted and you may not feel that your emotions are authentically expressed. When this happens your ability to feel joy, love and contentment are also numbed. To help with being able to reconnect with your emotions, you have to stop yourself from avoiding them and this must be done in a safe environment. Trauma cannot be processed if you are in a state of heightened anxiety. By: Angela Powell, MA, LPC