Healing Childhood Traumas: How to Start Thriving

Childhood trauma can have long-lasting, far-reaching impacts on your ability to function in adulthood if left unhealed and untreated. According to the CDC, over 60% of US adults have experienced childhood trauma in their lives. The good news is that trauma doesn’t have to linger in your body and mind forever. By learning to pinpoint childhood trauma and heal, you can rewrite your story and begin thriving in life.

Key takeaways:
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    Childhood trauma is difficult to heal from as kids, and therefore many experience the impacts of childhood trauma well into adulthood.
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    Childhood trauma can have negative impacts on a person’s self-esteem, personal relationships, mental health, career, and overall ability to function in life and feel happy.
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    Childhood trauma stems from adverse childhood experiences that are vast in nature; therefore the best therapeutic interventions to heal as adults will vary according to the nature of the trauma.
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    The sooner an adult is able to work through their emotions from childhood trauma and release them, the sooner they can improve their chances of building a happy, healthy life.

Is childhood trauma impacting my adult life?

One of the best ways to determine if childhood trauma is having a negative effect on your adult life is by examining whether or not your past has stayed in the past, or if you are holding onto memories that influence your personal relationships, job, personal happiness, physical health, and if you find yourself seeking out relationships with others who remind you of the person who caused the trauma in the past.

Childhood trauma can also affect your mental health by causing symptoms of anxiety, depression, negative beliefs and thought patterns, low self-esteem, body dysmorphia, dissociation, flashbacks, night terrors, social withdrawal, and risky behaviors.

Causes and types of childhood trauma

Childhood trauma can be mild to severe in nature and may be caused by a variety of circumstances or incidents. The various types of childhood trauma depend on the nature of the traumatic incident/incidents, also referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). According to research, those who have six or more ACEs lose 20 years of their average life expectancy compared to those who do not have any ACEs. Those with 4 or more ACEs are more likely to have a chronic health condition and engage in unhealthy behaviors.

ACEs include instances or cycles of:

  • Abuse: physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual
  • Neglect
  • Witnessing violence or abuse
  • Loss of a parent
  • Learning disability, ADHD, or dyslexia
  • Bullying
  • A serious childhood illness
  • Parent with a mental illness or substance abuse issues
  • Having many siblings and feeling like there isn’t enough to go around
  • Caretaking for siblings or a parent
  • Living in a high-conflict environment
  • Cold/detached parents
  • Attachment injuries (sometimes caused by a parent’s own childhood trauma)

How childhood trauma affects adulthood

When we’re exposed to trauma, or an ACE, the physical and emotional reactions from the event can linger in the body and mind – having detrimental impacts on various aspects of adult life until they are pinpointed, processed, healed, and then released. This happens when we do not process and feel our emotions in the moment. Just as a physical wound must hurt, scab over, and heal, so do emotional traumas.

The healthiest way to heal from trauma is by recognizing and holding space for our emotions – feeling them in the moment and realizing that the incident does not define us personally – rather, recognizing that it says more about the person causing the trauma (assuming it’s not a situation out of everyone’s control). It’s also helpful to view what happened as a violation to oneself, detach any negative meaning to it, and release it.

The problem with childhood trauma is that it’s not always so easy to process ACEs in healthy ways as they are experienced. This is because as children, we’re often told to stay strong, not cry or show anyone they hurt you, to not let things bother us, and to rise above it. This conditioning is often delivered by parents, caretakers, and teachers who do not wish to see children in pain. As good intentioned as this may seem, it can actually cause more harm than good, as it disenfranchises the emotions of the child in the moment and teaches them to hold their emotions inside and refrain from expressing or processing them.

How to heal childhood trauma

There are a variety of evidence-based therapeutic interventions that are effective at healing childhood trauma. The best form of therapy truly depends on the unique individual, the nature of their trauma, their connection with their therapist, the extent of the trauma, and the way the symptoms manifest into adulthood. Each therapist has a different approach and theoretical orientation, so it’s best to find a therapist who is experienced in working with trauma, especially your type of trauma, and to ensure that you feel comfortable and safe with this person and develop a good rapport. It also helps to search for a therapist who is empathetic, sensitive, and kind.

When childhood trauma contributes to negative self-esteem and thought patterns, interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help to rewrite the narrative and challenge these negative thoughts, as well as their source. Extreme cases of trauma that present with symptoms of PTSD may benefit from eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). There are many forms of therapy that have been found to be beneficial in healing the wounds of childhood trauma.

The most important and helpful techniques for healing trauma include:

Becoming present by practicing mindfulness techniques such as breathing exercises, body scanning, tuning into all physical sensations, and visualization.

Reflecting on the traumatic event or ACE.

Feeling and observing the physical sensations and emotions attached to the traumatic event.

Allowing what comes up to flow – be it sadness, anger, etc. and expressing these emotions in healthy ways. Cry, punch a pillow, yell, write, go to a business that allows you to break things, etc. You may even want to write a letter expressing your feelings surrounding the event that you do not send to anyone.

Observing how the incident triggered a physical or emotional reaction and why.

Checking in with yourself mindfully once more and sitting with your feelings, accepting your emotions and showing kindness toward yourself for feeling as you do. You are human, embrace that aspect of yourself and be loving toward yourself.

Attaching emotions to each physical sensation you experience in the moment. If you’re having a difficult time defining your emotions, a list can help.

Analyzing how the feelings and emotions from the past have contributed to any negative thought patterns or self-limiting beliefs.

Sharing your experiences, your feelings, and what you’ve learned. You can do this with a trusted friend or therapist, or write in a journal.

Releasing the processed emotions and events. You can do this in a variety of ways. Some prefer to visualize the emotions and trauma leaving their body, some may want to safely burn the letter or journal entry they wrote expressing their feelings, and others may want to release something into the sky or the ocean that represents the trauma that is being released, such as lighting a lantern, releasing a balloon, or throwing a stone or shell into the ocean.

While childhood trauma can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint and heal from, it is possible to move past any lingering childhood traumas as an adult. If you resonate with any of the signs or symptoms of unresolved childhood trauma, seek support from a licensed, trusted therapist to help you process and release your childhood trauma. There is recovery and brighter days ahead once you face and move through the blockages of pent-up emotions.

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