Healing from Childhood Trauma: It’s not impossible. It’s just hard.
Healing from childhood trauma is hard, but it starts with understanding it.
by: E.B. Johnson
When you experience childhood trauma, your life and your soul are altered forever. Those who suffer loss, abuse or neglect early-on in life can often suffer from serious psychological and emotional disorders for decades to come, changing who they are and destroying their ability to foster caring and nurturing relationships even decades after the traumatic event.
Childhood trauma holds us back and bricks up our potential in truly unimaginable ways. When our hearts are damaged at such critical developmental stages, it makes it easy to put up walls and harder to find the healing that we need.
Healing the harms and injuries of our childhood is one the hardest things we can do, but it’s necessary for us to create the life we want. If you want to get over the past, you have to start by facing it — bravely and one step at a time.
Coming to an understanding.
If you want to resolve your childhood trauma, you first need to understand it. Trauma can generate some momentous emotions, and unless we learn how to process these emotions, we will continue to repeat the same damaging patters that keep us stuck and hurting.Refusing to face the traumas of our childhood causes them to fester like a sore; staying in our bodies as unconscious energy that wrecks everything from our employment prospects to our romantic relationships.
Healing trauma starts with understanding it and the vast array of emotions that can come alone with it. When you’ve started to understand your trauma and how it affects you, you can start implementing change — but not before then.
What is childhood trauma?
Childhood trauma is caused by any situation in which a child perceives that they are in an extremely frightening, dangerous or overwhelming position.
Traumatic events cause children to feel helpless and scared in a way that is far beyond their mental and emotional processing. These situations can occur in one-off events like natural disasters and injuries — or they could occur from regular instances of physical, sexual and verbal abuse. All these events can bring on symptoms of emotional and psychological trauma, and all of these events can haunt children well into their adult lives.
The types of childhood trauma.
Childhood trauma can look different for everyone, but there are some core events that seem to have the most lasting effect on those of us who are unfortunate enough to experience them.
- Physical abuse —This occurs when someone (anyone) who has authority over you uses it to injure you physically. This can includes cuts, bruises, scratches, burns, broken bones and even the loss of consciousness.
- Physical neglect — When our caregivers fail to give us the physical resources we need to survive (like food, clothing or a place to live) this is physical neglect.
- Emotional abuse — We don’t typically think of emotional manipulation as abuse, but it is. When someone intentionally causes an injury to our dignity or emotional integrity, they are abusing you. Emotional abuse most often occurs in the form of threats, shaming, scapegoating and even confinement or driving you to hurt yourself.
- Sexual abuse — This is one of the most damaging forms of abuse and sadly one of the most common when it comes to childhood trauma. It is estimated by The National Center for Victims of Crime that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be the victim of childhood sexual abuse in their lifetime, but these numbers are generally assumed to be higher due to the low rate of reporting.
- Loss of a caregiver — Losing a parent or caregiver is another devastating event in any child’s life. Even when you are hardly old enough to remember it, the effects are far-reaching. Losing a parent is hard to understand and makes us vulnerable in ways we do not always realize.
- Emotional neglect — Emotional neglect is a big one, but also one of the hardest to realize and accept as adults. If your caregiver fails to give you the nurturing and connection you need to thrive, this is emotional neglect.
- Natural disasters — Living through a natural disaster is traumatic for everyone, but these events are especially traumatic with young, developing children. Fires, floods and hurricanes cause trauma in a different and unexpected ways.
Trauma doesn’t discriminate, it can happen to anyone at any time, but it’s especially damaging when it occurs during our childhood.
The haunting symptoms of childhood trauma.
Like any event that has an impact on our lives, childhood trauma can manifest a number of symptoms in a child that can follow them into their adulthood. If you are someone that has experienced trauma during your youthful years, you might still experience:
- Aggression / Anger issues
- Shock, denial, confusion
- Racing heartbeat
- Lack of focus
- Muscle Tension
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Sleep problems
- Mysterious aches and pains
The effects of childhood trauma on our adult lives.
Decades of research has shown what many of us have known all along: childhood trauma has negative, long-lasting effects on our emotional, psychological and even our physiological wellbeing.
Childhood trauma has been associated with various forms of emotion dysregulation as well as stress-reactivity, which is believed to be one of the links between childhood trauma and physiological disorders. Those who experienced emotionally abusive environments growing up are more likely to show stronger reactivity to stress and they also show more interpersonal problems as adults.
These effects manifest themselves in strange ways throughout our adult lives no matter how much time and space may separate us from the event. Learning how to recognize these manifestations of childhood issues is the core of our healing, but they can also be uncomfortable to face.
- Passive-aggressive behavior — Adult survivors of childhood trauma usually carry a lot of anger that they don’t know how to deal with. Rather than confront and deal with these painful emotions honestly, they bury them, resorting in passive-aggressive behavior that can isolate them and destroy important relationships. These are the people who often strike out with sarcasm they call a joke or “mistakes” they claim were innocent. They don’t feel comfortable showing their anger because they don’t know what will happen if they do. So, they act out passive-aggressively instead, protecting their already patched-up hearts in a self-defeating way.
- Attachment disorders — Those who are traumatised between 6 months and three years of age are more prone to have trouble forming healthy attachments with the people that they care for. Usually, this condition is referred to as RAD or reactive attachment disorder, which affects your ability to form adequate social relationships. RAD can impact everything from your mood to your behavior. It also makes it hard for those suffering from it to trust others.
- Lowered cognitive ability — When children are regularly abused or neglected, they often develop cognitive problems. This can include memory problems, poor verbal skills and problems focusing or concentrating on tasks.
- Inconsistent self-concept — Having an inconsistent self-concept means that you don’t know how to interpret the thoughts and feelings you have about yourself. Being unable to distinguish these emotions and perceptions makes you see yourself in a distorted view or possibly as “incompatible” with certain groups of people.
- Altered states of consciousness — If childhood trauma repeats over many years, it can force children (and even some adults) into a dissociative state. As children, we can’t recognize different states of consciousness, so we aren’t able to stop ourselves from slipping into them. These altered states of reality cause us to lose touch with our authentic selves and the things that bring value into our lives. Even years later, we rely on these delusional states to help us survive when the going gets tough.
- Poor behavioral control — Chances are that if you’re an impulsive adult, you’ve experienced some type of trauma in your childhood. Those who experience trauma in their youth often have a hard time controlling their behavior. They do whatever they feel like in the present moment because they have never learned to do otherwise. For many, it is the only way they know how to get the attention they were otherwise denied.
- Perpetual victimhood — When we’re children, it’s impossible for us to understand why bad things are happening. For that reason, many of us often revert to absurd or even illogical reasoning to explain for the negative events in our life and this carries on into our adulthood. Being abused or emotionally neglected forces us to form our identities in a state of victimhood and when that happens it becomes hard to see yourself as someone who has any power over their own life.
Healing our childhood wounds is hard, but it’s possible. Once we’ve come to understand our childhood traumas and they form they took, it’s then time to accept them for what they are and how they’ve impacted us.
There are three keys to accepting your childhood trauma:
Key 1: Explore your self-knowledge.
All acceptance begins with self-knowledge. Accept your emotions and where you are right now in this moment. If you’re feeling sad or low or in pain, take a step back and get to the root of those problems and where they come from. Sit in a quiet space and allow yourself to be physically in your body in the the present, no matter how painful that might be.
Learning how to accept our trauma is an uphill battle that can only be won by getting comfortable with it. Spend a few moments alone with your trauma each day and get to know her and the person she’s made out of you.
Key 2: See things for what they really are.
We invest so much time and energy into seeing things as we want them to be, that we lose touch the reality of how they actually are. Our imaginations can carry us away and that’s especially true when it comes to dealing with our childhood traumas. If you really want to accept the past and how it’s shaped your future, you have to start seeing things for what they are, rather that what you wish they were.
Key 3: Don’t confuse acceptance with preference.
Just because you accept something does not mean you prefer it or even support it. We often fight off acceptance because it feels a bit like “giving in”. It’s important to be clear with yourself that you’re not endorsing something by accepting it, you’re simply saying “This happened. Let’s move on.”
When bad things happen to us, we can almost feel a “need” to be uneasy with ourselves and the way things are. It proves a point and makes us feel as though we’ve regained some of our power over the hurts of the past. The problem is, though, that this leaves us weak and vulnerable and its sets us up for greater delusion and injury in the future.
If you want to accept who you are and where you’re at, you have to realize that acceptance isn’t giving in. It’s simply allowing things to be as they are, without imagining that you have a right or a responsibility attached to controlling it or changing how it might have been otherwise.
The 10 best ways to heal from childhood trauma.
Once you’ve identified your trauma and started down the road to acceptance you can begin to heal your childhood hurts, but it’s a brutal journey that can scourge the soul.
There’s no one-size-fits all solution for coming back from trauma, but there are solid techniques that can help you create the space you need to get better. Try these 10 habits to come back from the brink and take your life back from the traumas of your childhood.
1. Distance yourself from toxic people.
If you’ve identified trauma in your life and have started the healing process, it’s imperative that you distance yourself from the toxic people in your life that could hinder this process.
Survivors of trauma need to get away from anyone who creates more of the stress and disharmony they are already trying to escape.
Healing can’t take place in a turbulent environment, it needs peace and quiet to grow. Those who lie, cheat, steal or otherwise manipulate and blame are toxic for your development and poisonous to your sense of self.
One of the most important thing a survivor can learn is that you are allowed to remove yourself from anyone who stresses you out — no apologies needed. Cut them free before they do even more damage to your sense of self and wellbeing.
2. Learn self-regulation and stress-reduction techniques.
Stress has a funny way of forcing us back into the coping mechanisms and the negative behaviors we develop as damaged children. By learning simple techniques likes mindful breathing, relaxation and meditation we can actually develop the distress tolerance skills we need to undo our traumatic pasts and learn how to stay calm with things push us to the brink.
Simple yoga and meditation can do wonders when it comes to battling depression, anxiety or feelings of hopelessness. While they’re not a cure all, they can help us recenter and refocus on the things we need to do to feel better.
3. Seek out support.
Sometimes, it just isn’t possible to heal from the trauma of your past alone. It’s common for trauma survivors to become isolated, but this isolation is actually counter-productive to your healing. If you really want to find your way back to harmony, start by seeking out support and get the strength you need to put the pieces back together.
Connecting with others doesn’t mean you have to talk about the things that happened in your past (though that is often one of the most healing things we can do). It simply means staying engaged in the normal day-to-day activities that keep us plugged in and feeling like we’re an active and engaged part of this world.
4. Get more sleep — There’s not much that a good night or two of decent sleep won’t cure. Adult and children survivors of trauma often have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Managing your sleep routine is crucial for healing the hurts of your past, however.
5. Tighten up your diet.
There are some really striking relations between our neurobiological states and the ways we deal with and process stress. When we’re stressed or dealing with painful traumas, it actually generates an inflammatory response in our bodies not unlike the ones that occur when we suffer a sports injury.
This inflammation can be addressed by tightening up your diet and focusing on a healthy balance of nutrients that gives your brain the fuel it needs to get past the pain. When we feel uncomfortable or in pain, it can impact our mood and the way we deal with people and situations in our lives. Minimize your mood swings and symptoms of depression by giving yourself a well-balanced diet.
6. Allow yourself to get close to people.
Trauma forces us into survival mode, a suspended state of animation that monopolizes and uses up all our energy. When you’re in survival mode it’s hard — if not impossible — to get close to people. Experiencing trauma before the age of 10 makes you prone to isolating yourself and cutting of the relationships that give you the love you so desperately need.
Nothing melts shame faster than allowing the full weight of your heart to be seen by another person.
You can counteract this behavioral coping mechanism by allowing yourself to be vulnerable and loving with others. Find a small handful of friends (or a lover) and double down on your connection with them.
When you allow yourself to be loved and you give love in return, you send the message to your inner child that your pain is in the past and you are worthwhile as you are. Give the love you need in your life to the right people and you’ll see it returned tenfold to you.
7. Realize you’re safe now.
Distanced from the traumatic events and people of our pasts, we have to remind our inner child that they are no longer in danger.
Unresolved trauma leaves us in a constant state of “fight or flight”. This state can lead to longterm physical issues and is one of the contributing factors of PTSD. Childhood trauma has such a dramatic impact on our continued physical health and the longer we refuse to address it, the worse those effects become.
Spend some time alone with your inner child and spend some time comforting her. Reassure her that she had no part to play in the events that happened and let her know that she’s safe now in your loving care.
Until we resolve the hurts sustained by the broken child that lives inside of all of us, we cannot move forward to blossom into the powerful adults we were meant to be. Reclaim your power by realizing that you’re safe now from the things that once hurt you so deeply.
8. Find a trauma specialist.
Facing and resolving the pain of the past is not something that we can always do alone and it’s not something that can be managed simply with the help of a few good friends.
Sometimes, it’s necessary to find a specialist when dealing with childhood trauma; but it’s important to make sure you’re finding the right person to help you resolve past issues.
Trauma symptoms vary from case to case and as such need to be assess by qualified and experienced trauma professionals. Finding a therapist who has experience treating trauma like yours can take time, but cognitive-behavioral therapists and EMDR professionals are a good place to start.
Take your time and don’t rush into anything that doesn’t feel right. A professional can help you get to the root of your problems, but you need to be ready to open up and need to know what direction you want to head in.
Healing is hard but living eternally in pain is harder. If you think you need more serious help, reach out for it.
9. Find an experienced medical specialist.
Considering the wide array of physical symptoms that come alongside childhood trauma, it’s crucial that you also find a medical doctor that can help you with your physical healing as well as your mental and emotional healing.
While a therapist might be able to send your thoughts in the right direction, a medical professional will help you get your body going in the right direction which can make the healing that much easier. A functional medical provider will be able to evaluate your health as a whole and will work like an investigator to piece together the puzzle and identify the missing pieces that trigger your emotional and physical imbalances.
Doctors can help us save time and money when it comes to resolving our childhood traumas by pointing us in an exact direction of healing. If you don’t know where to begin, a trusted medical professional can give you the right tests and treatment methods you need to get back on top of things.
When you feel better physically, you have more strength to engage in the mental and emotional war of healing and resolution. This puts our overall wellness in clearer focus and makes our efforts to heal more effective and less costly in the long run.
10. Get honest about how you’re surviving.
Stop and take an honest look at your life as it stands right now in this moment. Allow yourself to recognize all the ways you have attempted to keep yourself safe and be brutally honest in recognizing all the coping mechanisms you’ve built up over the years.
Notice what mechanisms you used to get through your childhood and analyze their value in your life today. Do they still fit you and the goals that you have for your life? If they no longer serve you, then chances are they’re taking away from the person that you could become.
Maybe you use anger, aggression and intimidation as a means to control the people around you, or maybe you’re so untrusting of others that you’ve developed a self-reliance that is self-destructive at its core.
However it is you’ve managed to survive all these years, take a good hard look and don’t be afraid to be brutally honest. The truth will out, whether you like it or not. The sooner you open up to it, the easier the going will be.
BONUS: A 9-Step Process for Healing Childhood Trauma
If you still don’t know where to begin your healing, then don’t worry. You’re not alone. Childhood trauma is complex in nature and the healing it requires is even more complex. Understand that this journey takes time and there will be missteps along the way. When you feel strong enough to face the journey, start with this 9-step healing process.
Remember: Everyone’s trauma is different and everyone’s healing happens in different stages and at different ages. Be patient with yourself and drop any of these steps which don’t serve your process.
Step 1: Get grounded.
To engage in any meaningful healing, you need to be present in the here and now. Do that by starting out in a quiet place. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take several deep breaths and pay close attention to your body. Squeeze and release your muscles, a few groups at a time. Feel the ground beneath you and the way your body moves with your breath. Imagine, then, a solid column of energy travelling all the way down your spine and into the center of the earth. Be in your body and be in the moment. When you’re there, move to step 2.
Step 2: Recall the trauma.
Starting small, recall an event or situation in your life that left you feeling very vulnerable or upset. Review what happened in as much detail as possible and imagine that you are back in that time and place. Experience it again with all your senses and open yourself up to the tremendous honesty of the emotions it elicits from you. When you feel the emotions coming to head, move on to the next step.
Step 3: Allow yourself to feel it.
Problems arise from our emotions because we don’t allow ourselves to feel the unpleasant ones. We shut them off like a spigot, but the problem is they never stop flowing. The pressure builds and builds until the tap flies off and torrent comes spraying out. If you want to heal, you have to feel.
Continue breathing deeply and spend another moment or two in quiet relaxation as the feelings start to come. As the tension builds, scan your body for signs of sensation and notice the way the emotions bubble up inside of you. Your body might respond with tingling, tightness or pain; each of these sensations are valuable for the insight they provide you.
Explore each one of these sensations and silently describe them to yourself in as much detail as you can when they occur. Once you feel comfortable with these feelings and sensations, move on to step number 4.
Step 4: Give your emotions name.
Start to associate your emotions with the sensations you feel by giving name to your emotions. If there is tightness in your chest caused by anxiety, say it. If there is heat that travels up your neck into your face because of anger, state it and say so pointedly.
Giving a name to your emotions and the sensations the bring up gives you a greater sense of experience and a deeper knowledge and understanding of self and how you react to pain, pressure and stress.
Step 5: Love your feelings.
Mindfully healing from trauma means fully accepting everything we feel and loving our emotions (even the negative ones). To feel is to be human and to be human is a gift. Whether it’s your conscious mind at work or your unconscious mind in the moment, tell yourself, “I love myself for feeling sad/angry/anxious/etc.”
Do this with every emotion you feel, but do it especially with the hard ones. Only when you learn how to love every facet of yourself (emotions included) will you learn how to accept the trauma and detach yourself from it.
Step 6: Feel and experience it.
Sit with your emotions and all their unpleasant sensations and let the feelings ebb and flow through you as they will. Don’t try to hide them and don’t try to stop them. Let them be in the moment with you and watch them carefully as they pass by.
Let your body respond the way it needs to and don’t be afraid to cry or scream or let yourself collapse in a puddle of tears if that’s where they take you. Expressing your emotions in a productive way is the key to getting them moving inside you. Once your emotions have had their time, move on to step 7, but make sure you’re ready and make sure you’ve given your feelings all the time they need.
Step 7: Receive the message.
Our emotions can give us invaluable insight into the root of our traumas and negative patterns. Rather than assuming you get nothing from the feelings that make you uncomfortable, ask yourself, “What is this emotion trying to say to me?” Free writing is often one of the best ways to get to the root of our emotions, but all that matters is that we hear the messages they have for us. You can uncover this wisdom in any way that works for you, just make sure the meanings are clear.
Step 8: Share your experience.
After you’ve spent some time with your emotions and places that they stem from, it can be helpful to open up about your experience with someone that you trust.
If you feel like you’re ready, open up with your partner or a close friend about the traumatic events of your past that trouble you today. Describe what happened when the incident occurred and openly explain how you felt and how you reacted.
Talking or writing about our painful pasts is an important step in the healing process. You can also write letters (that you don’t have to send) to the people that hurt you and remove toxic emotions from your system by shifting the blame back to where it belongs.
Step 9: Let it go.
Letting go of our childhood traumas is the last step in the healing process and the one that is the hardest to come to. When you’ve spent enough time getting familiar with your hurts and the emotions they trigger, you can start letting go of the pain by visualizing an exclusion of the negative energy or by performing a ritual of release that allows you to move on.
Burn the letter that you wrote to your original offender, or cast off the trauma by casting a symbolic item into the sea. Resolution is an important step in the healing process, but we often never get resolution from perpetrators of childhood trauma. Give yourself your own resolution by symbolically cutting ties to the negative events and emotions that keep you shackled to your past.
Putting it all together…
Childhood trauma is one of the hardest things to recover from and one of the deepest wounds to heal. When we are touched by danger and loss of self-sovereignty as a child, it haunts us into our adulthood and the relationships we rely on for happiness and fulfilment.
Minimize the impact of childhood trauma by learning how to understand the ways in which trauma has affected your life. When you have come to intimately understand those traumas and the way they’ve impacted you, you’ll be able to accept those events and the emotions they elicit for what they are: a survival response to a situation you had no control over.
The things that occur in our childhoods shape us forever, but we can minimize their effects by taking an active stake in our own healing. Reclaim your power by taking back responsibility for your life and accepting that the perpetrators of your past have no power over you anymore. That lonely, broken child inside is safe now, but she needs to be reminded from time to time.