From a Therapist: The Effects of Childhood Trauma in Adults

Friday, July 14 2023

Childhood trauma has lasting consequences. In fact, the negative effects of childhood trauma can show up in adulthood. Mariam Saibu, CDBT, LPC, CRC, LCDC, CTP, a SonderMind clinician, shares her insights on the causes of childhood trauma, signs and symptoms to look for in adulthood, and how therapy from SonderMind can help. 

What can cause childhood trauma?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) are a series of events that occur in childhood and have  a negative physical and emotional impact in childhood and adulthood.1 Some of the examples of the causes of childhood trauma based on the ACE’s research study include the following:

  1. Having a parent with a mental health condition
  2. Parental abandonment 
  3. Parental neglect
  4. Parental abuse (physical, emotional, and mental)
  5. Domestic violence
  6. Parent in prison
  7. Parent experiencing a drug/alcohol problem 

How childhood trauma shows up in adults

Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk once said in a seminar that “trauma is a disruption of the normal threat response.” Therefore, we tend to see individuals with childhood trauma overreact or underreact in these five trauma domains:

  1. Awareness (overthinking or freezing)
  2. Thoughts (excessive rumination) 
  3. Relationships (difficulty with connecting with people or desperate needs for connection)
  4. Reactivity (exaggerated reactions to neurotypical situations) 
  5. Feelings (intense emotions or dissociation)

In addition, children who experience childhood trauma are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors such as drug use, experience higher body mass indexes, and have a higher number of sexual partners and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).1 Since these factors are a leading cause of mortality, we also tend to see early death as a risk factor for individuals with childhood trauma.  On the socioeconomic front, childhood trauma increases the chances of future poverty, domestic violence, and social inequality.

Recognizing the signs: symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood

Symptoms of childhood trauma could include intrusive thoughts such as flashbacks (reliving the traumatic event), distorted cognitions (negative view of self, world, and emotions),2 avoidance of trauma reminders, exaggerated responses such as anger/fear, and difficulty navigating emotions when experiencing any stimuli associated with the traumatic event(s).

The lingering impact of childhood trauma in adulthood

It is important to note that most individuals who experience childhood trauma will recover. According to the Veteran Administration (VA),3 about 3-15% of girls and 1-6% of boys will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing trauma. The VA did note that the numbers were higher for certain types of trauma. 

According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study completed by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the higher the number of traumatic events that an individual experiences in childhood, the higher the likelihood of future incarceration, substance abuse, poor health conditions, difficulty coping, somatic symptoms, and toxic stress. It is also important to note that individuals with unresolved childhood trauma also tend to exhibit depression, poor self-esteem, sleep disturbances, emotional dysregulation, difficulty with relationships, and poor concentration, which can mimic the symptoms of ADHD.4

Treating and healing childhood trauma in adults 

It is important to obtain a psychological evaluation in order to understand and be able to name their presenting symptoms. Individuals can use this information to obtain therapy and potential medication if needed. Therapy is an avenue for an individual to understand how their childhood trauma is currently affecting them as adults and learn skills to handle difficult emotions. 

The research on PTSD conducted by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk has taught us that individuals with trauma present with physical and psychological symptoms. Therefore, all treatment approaches must include elements of bottom-down approaches such as mindfulness, diaphragmatic breathing, exercise, etc. 

Unlike talk therapy which is a top down intervention, these bottom-down interventions are designed to access visceral response to triggers and reset trauma sensory states in the body.  These bottom down therapeutic interventions use the body as a source of emotional regulation. A few examples of therapeutic approaches that incorporate some elements of bottom down approaches include eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), somatosensory psychotherapy, Internal Family Systems (IFS), and neurofeedback.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of childhood trauma and would like to start the healing process, SonderMind can help. Let us know a little bit about yourself and what you’re looking for, and we can connect you with a licensed mental health professional who specializes in the treatment of childhood trauma. 

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