After I left home at 18, it took me a while to figure out that I was damaged. I had assumed my upbringing was normal and had no idea that I had spent years being traumatised by the violence and abuse I suffered at the hands of my father (which you can read more about here). I first discovered the concept of therapy at University when a friend recommended I went along. Talking about your problems was not something that working class people did and I don’t think I had any idea what counselling was. 20 years later, and I’m a qualified counsellor and have been working with trauma for many years. In the process I’ve learnt much about both the immediate and long term effects of childhood trauma and have unwittingly discovered a lot about myself.
Experiencing a single traumatic event such as an accident or the death of a parent may lead to the development of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) which you can read more about here, but this article is more concerned with what happens when you are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events as a result of living in a violent or abusive home. This can cause you to live with the effects of complex developmental trauma which may become so embedded that you consider them a part of your personality. You may be experiencing the effects of complex trauma without realising. You may even have been told that you have a personality disorder (borderline or schizoid) which might add to the feeling that there is something wrong with you.
By reading and learning about complex developmental trauma myself, I slowly began to realise that some of the traits I had always considered to be just a part of my personality are actually attributable to my experiences as a child. Research shows that repeated exposure to trauma as a child can permanently alter the structure of your brain which in turn can cause problems in later life. Here’s a brief guide to some of the signs you may be living with the effects of childhood trauma as an adult and some ideas that might help you to overcome it.
- You have a tendency to see the worst in people and the world. When I was a kid, I found it much easier to get on with animals than I did with my fellow humans. I spent hours sitting with my dog in her basket and had ambitions to be a vet. My attitude towards humanity was so poor that I didn’t really care about people much at all and thought that vegetarianism was far more important than concerning myself with people and their problems. I thought this was just because I liked animals but over time this has gradually shifted as I have had my own therapy and started to have successful relationships with friends and partners. I find that engaging with things I feel passionate about helps as well as trying to hold the long view. When I feel depressed about the state of the world I console myself with the view that I’m such a tiny speck in the grand scheme of the universe that everything that seems important now will have paled into insignificance in as little as 50 or 100 years time.
- You don’t like yourself very much. It took me a long while to realise that I had a very negative view of myself and that I immediately assumed that people I met would automatically dislike me and that it was up to me to convince them that I was worth knowing. This was such a deeply held belief that it felt like an innate part of me and to be honest it has been difficult to shift. Therapy can help you overcome feelings of low worth but if these form part of your core beliefs because ultimately you were told repeatedly that you were unlovable than it can be a difficult one to tackle. Someone once told me that therapy can help you to build new beliefs about yourself on top of these old ones but that you don’t actually shift the old stuff. It helps to understand this about yourself and notice it rather than let it rule you. When I meet new people I can’t help thinking I have to prove myself likeable in some way but I also try not to engage in this thought process too much. I allow myself to notice it but not indulge it.
- You scare easily. I used to like watching horror films and my partner used to delight in jumping out at me afterwards because he knew I would almost touch the ceiling in shock. When I walk down the street at night I notice everything and am constantly on high alert. I know who is walking towards me, who is behind me and keep track of my surroundings like a hunted animal. My experience may mirror that of lots of women, but it can also mean that you are suffering from the effects of childhood trauma. When we are living in a dangerous situation it pays to be hypervigilant so that we are alert to potential threats and can keep ourselves alive. When as adults we escape the dangerous situation, it’s as if our brains are stuck on the wrong setting and we remain in a permanently watchful state. This can easily turn into anxiety and may lead to panic attacks and an inability to cope with stressful situations. Our brain doesn’t realise that we don’t need the coping mechanism any more and what was useful can become a problem. I have found mindfulness techniques such as meditation can be helpful, as does having an awareness of the problem and once again allowing yourself to notice your anxiety without acting on it.
- You expect to die young. When I read that one of the effects of complex developmental trauma can be having a ‘sense of a foreshortened life’ it stopped me in my tracks. I grew up in the shadow of the millennium but genuinely never thought I would live to see it ( I was 23 in the year 2000). I continue to worry that I will die prematurely and not see my children into adulthood. Knowing that this is a common reaction to living in a violent household as a child was extremely beneficial to me. It’s as if our effort to survive on a daily basis means that our brains are not capable of thinking in the long term. How can we picture ourselves in the future when we think that something terrible will happen to us before we even get a chance to grow up ourselves? We are too preoccupied with the daily struggle to survive in a dangerous environment to be able to consider that we may live beyond it. It can help to consciously imagine yourself in the future: try drawing a timeline that takes you up to old age and details your hopes and dreams.
- You suffer from frequent nightmares or flashbacks. Frequent dreams or ‘daydreams’/flashbacks about what happened in the past is a fairly common sign of trauma. I dream about my Father fairly regularly and am instantly taken back to a time when I was small and helpless. I wake up relieved to be in my own bed in my own room and glad to be in control of my life. If you are experiencing flashbacks to historical events as an adult then you could benefit from specialist trauma therapy. To get through them, try and ground yourself by anchoring yourself on a familiar object in the room and reminding yourself where you are and how old you are and that you are safe and well.
- You feel the need to control your environment. When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to grow up and leave home as I knew that as soon as I did then things would get better. I am often surprised when my own children express sadness at growing older as I simply couldn’t wait to control my own life. As a result, I believe that my current happiness is attributable to me being in control of my own destiny so at times I struggle when things are out of my control. I have had to learn that other people are just as capable of organising things or managing situations as I am but it’s something I still struggle with. If you find you have similar difficulties, try allowing your friends or partner to plan a holiday for example – you may be surprised at how well it works out.
- You have maladaptive coping mechanisms. I worked in substance use for many years and the vast majority of my clients had experienced some kind of trauma in their lives. We are lucky if we can find healthy ways to heal ourselves and many people turn to addictions, develop eating disorders or find comfort in self-harm. I myself have struggled with addiction and used to be a daily cannabis smoker as a young adult. I didn’t realise that I was actually self-medicating until I stopped and started suffering from panic attacks and anxiety. I have found that regular aerobic exercise that gives me a good whack of natural endorphines can be really helpful. Sometimes it’s a bit of a struggle to choose the running shoes over the glass of wine but I am always glad when I manage it.
- You struggle with being content. There is a lot of evidence that abusive experiences in childhood can lead to mental health problems. You may have suffered with anxiety or depression or you may just find it difficult to relax when times are good. If you are used to living in an unpredictable environment which has a tendency to erupt into crisis it can be difficult to feel okay when life is going well and to all intents and purposes you ‘should’ be happy. I find that I constantly keep myself busy and find relaxation difficult. Spending time alone may be difficult if you had an abusive childhood and you may have a tendency to ruminate or overthink when left to your own devices. Sometimes the realisation that just doing nothing is okay can be revolutionary. Yoga and other activities that involve mindfulness may also be helpful.
- You have a tendency to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. A compulsion to repeat the traumatic experience is a common response to complex trauma and is referred to as re-enactment. Survivors are often criticised for apparently ‘choosing’ to be in abusive relationships over and over again but this may be a subconscious attempt to repeat the traumatic event in the hope of a different outcome. Not all survivors of childhood domestic violence go on to experience abuse in their own experiences but this phenomenon may explain why some do. I used to find myself attracted to ‘bad boys’ when I was younger and found myself in an abusive relationship at the age of 17. I had to make a conscious effort as a young adult to pull myself away from men who had the potential to be emotionally abusive.
The effects of childhood trauma are really only just beginning to be understood and there continues to be much research in this area. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) is a relatively new form of therapy which has shown promising signs of being able to help. When people are traumatised it’s as if the memory gets ‘stuck’ in the wrong part of their brain and they are unable to process it properly which is what leads to the nightmares and flashbacks. The founder of EMDR, Dr Shapiro noticed that she felt better about a traumatic experience after walking through a forest whilst thinking about her problems. Her eyes were flicking backwards and forwards through the trees and she noticed that afterwards she felt inexplicably calmer. She continued to research and experiment with this and EMDR was born. There is now research that suggests any activity that helps you to form links between the right and left sides of your brain may be beneficial in the recovery process. For kids this means things like star jumps and trampolining and adults may benefit from activities like swimming, cycling or running. I have been strangely drawn to these forms of exercise myself and often find my anxiety lessens as a result. The good thing about EMDR is that it is a brief therapy and one or two sessions can often shift things. You can find a therapist here.
More traditional forms of talking therapy can take a lot longer to produce results. If you go down this route, try and find a good therapist who has a deep understanding of trauma and is willing to give you helpful tools and techniques to manage your symptoms. I wish more than anything that someone had told me that I was suffering from trauma when I was a young adult as I more or less had to work it out for myself. If you can’t afford private therapy, check with your GP what help is available on the NHS as some areas have specialist trauma centres. I have also found the following books invaluable: Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman and The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. Furthermore, I find writing regularly and breaking the silence about my own experiences to have been extremely healing. Try sitting down and just writing whatever comes into your head as a starting point. Connecting with other survivors can also be a good way of realising that you are not alone and can help you to stop blaming yourself. Look for local groups that link you with others that have had similar experiences. Above all, remember that nobody deserves to be abused and that people can and do overcome their childhood experiences. It may be a long road but even just reading this article may be the first step.