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Sunday, May 16, 2021

How Childhood Trauma Can Affect Mental Health Into Adulthood

Why recognizing our traumas and getting the help we need is imperative to our healing

Trauma is a scary word. It evokes connotations of fear, pain, and even violence. However, the truth is that trauma (and particularly childhood trauma) is formed by different experiences in most people’s lives—anything from an illness to a car accident can inspire it.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than two thirds of children experience a traumatic event before age 16. Even so, many people do not identify and address their traumas for a long time—if ever. And the lingering effects of it can be seen in one’s adult life. 

I have experienced many traumatic events in my life—from a loved one’s suicide attempts to my own dealings with mental health issues, I was forced to grow up before I was ready to. And while I have been fortunate enough to identify most of my traumas and address them head on, I am not done working through them—nor do I know if I ever will. Problems with mental health, triggers, codependency, and even unhealthy defense mechanisms are still something I battle with. Although every day a bit less. 

“There is a wide range of symptoms [for trauma],” says Ana Gomez, a renowned author and psychotherapist with over 25 years of experience in the field. “Trauma exists in us, not just as a verbal narrative. It exists in the mind and in the nervous system (…). An individual with unresolved trauma will feel a sense of defectiveness, thinking ‘I’m not good enough.’” 

This sense of defectiveness, says Gomez, will lead individuals to develop unhealthy behaviors and coping mechanisms that seek to help them obtain a complete sense of self. But of course, these will always fail. 

Things that may seem insignificant could have a lasting impact on a person. A girl called ‘overweight’ by her mother may develop body dysmorphia that continues in her adult years. A boy called ‘weak’ by his father may struggle with his identity for the rest of his life—always feeling insecure or not good enough. 

Unresolved traumas can linger like ghosts haunting a house. The longer they’re around, the more fear they’ll evoke from those living with them. 

“My older brother’s friends used to bully me,” says a 22-year-old and recent college graduate who, for the purposes of this interview, has decided to remain anonymous. “They would always make fun of my appearance. And I didn’t know why, I was just a kid (…). To this day, I’m still struggling with believing the stuff they’d say about me. Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I still hear them calling me ‘ugly’ or ‘fat.’ It’s still something I have to fight every day.”

“I was 10 years old when my father passed away,” says Ophelia Palmer, a 40-year-old business owner. “Nobody would tell me what was going on when it happened. I kept waiting for my dad to come back. I simply thought he was hurt or in the hospital. I figured it out on my own when I saw him in the casket (…). [To this day] I have a hard time trusting anyone. I’m always on the lookout, wondering if someone is hiding something from me. My anxiety kicks in and I doubt others and even myself.” 

“As long as I can remember, my dad was always high or drunk,” says Lila Smith, a young residential counselor who works with foster kids. “He was always on edge, and I remember he would try to argue with me about big philosophical questions when I was just a kid (…). This caused a big divide between me and him, and even between him and my mom.”

Smith recalls how this caused her to not feel comfortable around her father. And even after her parents divorced and he moved out, Smith remained unsure on how to reach him. “He tried sometimes, and he was a good dad,” says Smith, “but he just didn’t know how to be intimate with his kids. He has too many wounds that he projected on us.” 

As these personal testimonies show, trauma sticks, and it is harmful. It changes a person, and the effects are not usually short-lived. 

Walls are also not built from one day to another—they are constructed over time. And this is what makes it harder to tear them down.

I built walls to protect myself in my teen years, and it wasn’t until early adulthood that they started to be broken down. The process has been painful but freeing, to say the least. 

“Yes, it takes a lot of work [to address our traumas], but it’s so worth it in the long run”, says Gomez.  

Trauma lives deep inside a person. Even if the memories are repressed and live in the unconscious part of a person’s mind, they may seep through in symptoms of anxiety, or relationship struggles, or even low self-esteem. 

“Trauma takes away from the quality of life because one is carrying all [that heaviness] in their nervous system. So the benefits to addressing and healing these traumas are countless,” says Gomez.

According to Gomez, these benefits include proper mental healing, healthy decision-making, the eradication of generational trauma, and even a strong physical health. 

The Adverse Childhood Experiences study, mentioned by Gomez, is one of the largest studies ever conducted in the country. The study aimed to study the connection between the mind and the body by analyzing the impact that a person’s traumatic childhood experiences had on their lives.

According to Gomez, “[the study] found a relationship between adverse childhood experiences and health risk factors for diseases in adulthood, including heart disease and cancer. [Additionally], for the people that had high adversity, there is a reduction of 20 years of life. These are people that tend to die early (…). [Even if we try to live healthy lifestyles], if we still carry huge amounts of unhealed trauma, eventually it may express itself in our bodies.” 

Sometimes a person’s traumas seem a bit more obvious than other people’s. That does not mean that some traumas are less than others, as people are affected differently by varying experiences and events. Just because someone did not experience abuse or an illness as a child does not mean their traumas aren’t important or worth addressing. And things such as neglect, poverty, or confronting difficult situations can be just as harmful.

“People have different biologies, different environments, and different capacities for resiliency,” says Gomez. “This is why trauma and adversity expresses itself in different ways in different individuals.” 

However, in all cases, once a child’s sense of stability and self-worth are hurt in any way, it may take years of work to rebuild them as adults. Once that trauma lays its roots in a person, it takes work to uproot it. 

“Our childhood lays the foundation for who we are going to become,” says Gomez. “People may fail to see an unavailable parent as something traumatic, but when you’re [young] that is traumatic (…). Neglect or having parents that are distant and [cold] are deep injuries that impact how individuals will relate to others later on.”

Many traumatized adults might even develop a mental disorder such as depression or PTSD. Others might engage in risky or self-destructive behavior as a way to cope with the trauma. 

“Eventually trauma comes out,” says Gomez. “The defenses and behaviors that have protected [traumatized individuals] from pain are not able to hold [forever]. The symptoms of trauma appear in different ways.” 

This can include addiction, anxiety, fear. These things are dangerous. So the  importance here lays in uprooting those traumas and working through them before they can cause further damage to our selves. 

It’s still hard for me to be open about my traumas. For years I never talked about the things I had to suffer through while growing up, not even to those closest to me. It took time—and that’s okay. It always starts with taking the “first step,” as Gomez describes it. 

“[The first step] is asking ourselves: ‘Am I living an authentic life?’ We need to sit down with ourselves and be honest and discern whether there is something within ourselves that we haven’t looked at yet. We need to reach awareness and open our minds,” says Gomez. “The traumatized self is there and there are multiple roads to it.” 

Once you’ve unearthed your traumas, it’s time to work through them. Talk to them with people close to you, write about them, reflect on who you are and how your experiences have shaped you. And find a therapist that has a focus on trauma; one who understands the damaging effects childhood experiences can have on adult life. The search for the right therapist could take a while, but it’s worth it. 

“Therapy isn’t for ‘crazy’ people. We’re all in the same boat. Some research has shown that 90% of people have experienced some sort of trauma (…). All of us have something to look at; all of us have something to heal. We deserve it,” says Gomez. “Healing does not come in a neat package,” says Gomez. “Instead it’s kind of like a spiral through which we will go through deeper and deeper levels of healing. This is something that we will probably do until the day we die (…). But as this happens, we will find greater freedom. Freedom to be who we are meant to be.” 

The growing effects of healing will reflect in the decisions we take in every aspect of our lives. From what we eat, to how we treat others, and even to how we deal with our finances. 

The individuals mentioned before are healing. They’re working through their traumas. But they could not have done that if they hadn’t first decided to take a step in the right and necessary direction. 

“Healing should not be a source of shame,” says Gomez in a conclusion statement. “We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the next generation.” 

So, take the first step. You won’t regret it. 

One source for this story has decided to remain anonymous for safety and privacy purposes. Keep up with all of Green Living’s original content online and on social media.

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