How Childhood Trauma Affects Us as Adults
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines childhood trauma as “the experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.” These experiences can have a lasting negative impact on all levels of well-being into adulthood if not properly treated. The CDC reports that more than 60% of adults in the United States have experienced an adverse childhood event leading to lasting trauma, while 25% have had three or more.¹ When this type of stress is experienced by a young child, either in one memorable experience or in repeated circumstances, the child can develop a chronic stress response that may affect healthy development into adulthood.
What Types of Childhood Trauma Are There?
Adverse events typically cause two different types of trauma. The first is complex trauma, which involves multiple events over a longer period. These include neglect, physical or emotional abuse, witnessing violence, or living in a home with substance abuse or untreated mental illness. The second type, acute trauma, includes short yet often life-changing events like natural disasters, losing a loved one, or accidents.
How Brain Development Gets Affected
Early childhood exposure to traumatic events is likely to affect brain development, often leading to lifelong side effects if left untreated. One study² shows that one of the primary reasons for cerebral changes is due to modifications in the functioning of emotional processing areas in the brain, including the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala. Deeply negative experiences may turn into chronic fear and stress, changing the functioning of these brain regions and altering the typical stress responses through an overly activated hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This may lead to chronically increased or deficient cortisol levels and symptoms such as less-than-optimal behavioral responses to stress, lower emotional regulation, decreased executive functioning, impaired memory, lower flexibility, and even dissociation.
Trauma during childhood can occur at multiple important cerebral developmental milestones. Therefore, if an event or events occurred during the maturation in a specific region, it may more severely affect the proper functioning. However, it’s important to remember that no region of the brain acts in isolation, so developing regions will also have a cascading effect on other areas.
Sadly, untreated trauma can lead to long-term side effects into adulthood. These are most often seen in unhealthy emotional and physical responses.
Mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and certain personality disorders like borderline personality disorder (BPD) can be caused by adverse events in childhood. If a child is experiencing adverse events, you may notice signs such as difficulty expressing and identifying emotions, intense emotional outbursts, sensitivity to certain triggers, becoming easily overwhelmed, and perceiving the world as an unsafe place where they constantly need to protect themselves from potential attacks. These emotional patterns may become engrained and follow teenagers and young adults into adulthood, challenging relationships, work, and mental well-being.
For example, as adults, individuals exposed to trauma at a young age are more likely to experience trust and attachment issues. If a parental or authoritative figure caused the abuse, it may be more difficult to believe in the positive intentions of others. They may also be afraid to be abandoned or, on the other end, afraid to be emotionally intimate with potential partners. These underlying patterns and beliefs can cause difficulties connecting with others due to low self-esteem, fear, clinginess, detachment, or lack of effective communication skills.
Many may be surprised to know that physical health issues can also be caused by childhood trauma. During the critical developmental years of childhood, the body and brain are rapidly growing and changing, laying down the foundations for how they will work during the person’s lifetime. Many of these functions can become distorted when a child grows up with stressful adverse experiences.
One of the most impacted systems is the nervous system, which alerts the brain and body to stressful surroundings or situations. A sensitive nervous system can remain on high alert, causing hypervigilance, rapid heart rate, higher blood pressure, incoherent breathing patterns, and a strained immune system. Exposure to these events can also increase the risk of heart disease and even cancer.³ Why? Chronic stress may change hormones and cerebral structure to activate “fight-or-flight” mode. Remaining this way can lead to a cascade of physiological shifts that upset the balance of the systems in your body.
Many adults who’ve experienced childhood trauma may also turn to substances like alcohol, unhealthy eating habits, or drugs to help decrease the pain and discomfort associated with physical health issues. This may lead to further bodily stress and negative health impacts over time.
What Will Determine How Someone React to Childhood Trauma?
It’s important to remember that although two people may experience the same event, no two will have the exact same trauma response. Some children and adults may find certain events more impactful than others and require different assistance to overcome them.
Some factors contributing to trauma responses include age, duration of the events, severity of abuse, temperament, cultural norms, and the support system available to the child.
Younger children tend to feel fear from a lack of understanding of a traumatic situation, while older children may feel an overwhelming burden of responsibility to fix the situation or that it is their fault. All children and adults have unique personalities that can be more or less sensitive to certain situations than others. More sensitive and introspective children will not respond the same way as an exuberant child. This is further complicated by cultural factors, which affect how children view situations as distressing or even normal.
Most importantly, a high level of quality support available to the child during and after the trauma can greatly diminish its negative effects by providing helpful coping skills and softening the emotional responses created by the trauma.
So, How Can We Treat It?
If you’re an adult who has experienced adverse childhood events and suffers from symptoms like, sleep disturbance, extreme anger or sadness, inability to regulate emotions under stress, difficulty concentrating, headaches, stomach pains, attachment disorders, low self-esteem, or partaking in destructive habits, you may benefit from an evaluation by a mental health professional. This does not mean you’re “crazy” but acknowledges that you may need help.
It’s best to treat childhood trauma as quickly as possible. However, even adults with long-standing trauma can positively change their lives and well-being by working with professionals specializing in their needs.
Multiple modalities are available, from Cognitive Processing Trauma Therapy, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, Narrative Exposure Therapy, Prolonged Exposure, and more. By finding the right fit for your situation, you can become more mindful to avoid emotional outbursts, find healthy coping strategies, improve relationships, and perceive past events more productively. We encourage you to contact the admissions team at The Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center to see what can help you begin the process of healing.