Childhood trauma has deep psychological effects. You might feel like it’s affected your brain, but what’s happened to you leaves psychological scars. And, those scars mostly affect your mind, not your brain. You live in fear. That’s the reality. And, it’s a stressful way to live. It’s a sign that you’re experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Here is a list of PTSD symptoms. But, these are only symptoms. The psychology behind your symptoms is most important. There are deeper explanations. You’re going through your childhood trauma in your own way. And, the nature of your trauma along with your childhood history and relationships contribute to your symptoms. The effects of childhood trauma might be somewhat universal, but they have very individual meanings for you.
All of this can be sorted out. It might help to know that the symptoms you have are typical. But you can get a deeper understanding of what exactly is going on. Your symptoms and your life can change. You don’t have to live this way.
Typical Symptoms of PTSD
PTSD does have some typical universal symptoms. You might have some of them. But, remember, you are you. And the way you experience the after-effects of your trauma won’t have the same meaning as anyone else’s.
You might experience:
- Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
- Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
- Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
- Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you
- Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the trauma
- Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you
- Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world
- Hopelessness about the future
- Memory problems
- Difficulty maintaining close relationships
- Feeling detached from family and friends
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Being easily startled or frightened
- Always being on guard for danger
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
Most of these are trauma reactions. But, what’s underlying your dreams and nightmares, your negative thoughts about yourself, the guilt and shame, all have complex meaning. To work out the effects of childhood trauma, these need to be understood. You’ve lived through terror. This terror has stirred feelings distinct to you.
The Psychology Of PTSD
PTSD is about terror. When you’ve experienced childhood trauma you were in a situation (or situations) of overwhelming helplessness. Now the trauma lives in your symptoms. And, in your constant fears. How does this happen?
Let’s think about the normal fight or flight reaction to danger. What happens when you can’t either fight or get away? When there is nowhere to go. That’s trauma. You feel helplessly trapped, in an unmanageable situation. What do you do?
In trauma, you “get away” in your mind, through what psychologists call dissociation. Dissociation means that during the trauma, you detached yourself from your emotional reactions and didn’t feel anything. At least you didn’t know you did.
In fact, you may have felt you were floating above. As if the one experiencing the trauma wasn’t really you. This is a form of flight.
Yet, it was you. And many times, that trauma comes back in nightmares, in vivid flashbacks, in various ways you relive it over and over. Even if you don’t have the flashbacks or nightmares, there are other ways that you relive traumatic fears.
The terror lives deep in your bones and you can’t get rid of it, even if you thought you did. Here are some of the things you might feel:
Effects Of Childhood Trauma
- Always on high alert (hypervigilant) watchfulness
- Danger seems around every corner
- A catastrophe is about to happen
- Fear of anger, fighting back or speaking out
- Panic about being trapped (claustrophobia)
- Distrust in relationships
- Depression, anxiety, OCD, drug or alcohol use
- Dreams and nightmares
Let’s take each of these, one by one, and talk about what they really mean. These symptoms might seem like they’re wired into your brain chemistry now. But, actually, they happen in your mind. And, since these symptoms are largely psychological, they can definitely change with help.
High Alert (Hypervigilant) Watchfulness
Your mind is on high alert. That’s called hypervigilance. It isn’t something you do intentionally, it’s the effect of trauma. You scan the world constantly for evidence of danger. Don’t feel safe anywhere. Can’t sleep. You double check the locks. You’re afraid to go anywhere alone, especially at night.
Yet, it’s also hard to trust that anyone will keep you safe. No one did. Now, the world seems out of control. Anything could happen and you’re helpless to stop it. Your only option, your unconscious mind says, is to keep a close eye on everything and everyone around you. That way, maybe, you can protect yourself this time. You’re scared that danger is around every corner.
Danger Seems Around Every Corner
Childhood trauma means that you were in danger. This triggered your brain (more deeply your unconscious mind) to believe danger can happen at any moment. You were helpless, and there was no one safe to turn to. Maybe your trauma was inflicted by someone who was supposed to be taking care of you.
You’ve been on high alert, having to take care of yourself, by being extremely careful.
You need to feel in control. Know what it’s like not to be. Your child mind remembers the trauma of powerlessness. Hypervigilance and worry about danger are designed to protect you. You’ll watch out for yourself because no one else can be trusted to keep you safe. Especially from a catastrophe, you’re sure is about to happen.
Feeling Catastrophe Is About To Happen
Yes, you feel danger is around every corner. But, even worse is the terror that an earth-shattering catastrophe is about to happen. Believe it or not, very often this terror is stirred up if you have anything good. The catastrophe you expect is certain to take what’s good away. Someone could die. You could be killed. Everything will fall apart.
You’re afraid to make a wrong move.
That terror sometimes makes you afraid to go out. Afraid to drive. Worried about going to sleep. Even at times panicked about what you eat. You’re terrified of separation from loved ones. And this terror often makes you particularly afraid of your anger.
Fear Of Anger, Fighting Back, & Speaking Out
Anger is one of the scariest feelings. You’re afraid you’ll hurt someone; make them go away; or that they’ll retaliate. So, your anger might be well-hidden, even from yourself. This is one major effect of childhood trauma. Or if you get angry it might come out in big frustrated explosions that make you scared or guilty. You try very hard to control it like you try to control everything else.
Maybe someone’s anger hurt or terrified you as a child. You couldn’t fight back when you were little. May have been threatened or punished if you tried to speak out. So, now you don’t. You hold things back. Don’t think anyone will listen. And, you likely, somewhere inside you, resent having to comply.
It’s very hard not being able to stand up for yourself, but you can’t. You swallow how you feel. Really don’t trust people, relationships, or anyone to be there for you. Or to listen. Anger seems dangerous. It’s trapped inside you, along with other feelings.
Panic About Being Trapped (Claustrophobia)
You feel trapped in many different situations. Can’t say “no,” or leave when you want to. Maybe, you are even claustrophobic. You can’t go in elevators, or be in small spaces. Not into an MRI, or a small room or a crowded area if you feel you can’t get out. This panics you. You avoid these situations at all costs. Feeling trapped is a frequent effect of childhood trauma.
If you feel you have to give other people what they want and can’t express your feelings or needs openly, this is a different kind of trapped. And, it’s more to the point of what trauma does to your mind. Your feelings are trapped inside you. You can’t openly be yourself. Both you and your feelings are shut away in a tight box inside.
Distrust Of Relationships
Part of the reason you can’t openly be yourself is that you’re anxious around most people. You’re on the alert for anything that makes you think you aren’t liked, or good enough, or as good as they are. You compare yourself constantly. Things often seem like put-downs. You aren’t sure, but being anxious about it makes it hard to relax.
Basically, it’s not easy to trust anyone. Sometimes you don’t think it’s worth trying to be close, but you’re lonely. So, you do try. Yet, since you’re always worried about being judged, rejected or used, you never feel really close. It’s a vicious cycle you’d like to get out of, but can’t.
So, you’re almost always in a state of either high or low-level anxiety. But, childhood trauma often also leads to OCD, depression, or drug and alcohol use.
Depression, Anxiety, OCD, Drug or Alcohol Use
Yes, what childhood trauma does to your mind can create deep and persistent depression, anxiety, OCD, and substance abuse. Constant worry, the terror of catastrophe, feelings of imminent danger, panic, fears of expressing your feelings are anxiety-driven. You need to feel control and OCD is a way of trying to have it. You want some relief.
OCD is emotionally meant to be a technique to override anxiety. You might be ritualistic about the things you do. Clean constantly. Or keep things in tidy order. Even try to carefully plan things out so that you don’t make any mistake. A mistake means losing control. But, inevitably, terrible doubt takes over. What if you are wrong?
It’s very difficult to live this way. Especially if you feel there is no relief and no escape. And, this leads to depression. You feel hopeless. Can’t sleep. Dreams and nightmares haunt you. You’re afraid to try therapy. Or maybe therapy failed you too.
Turning to alcohol or drugs might seem the only way out of constant torment. Your self-esteem is very low and you don’t have much hope. Yet, it’s important to know that none of this is your fault. You don’t have to live this way.
Even when your dreams and nightmares scare you, they do have something to say. They can be guides of a sort when you get the right kind of therapeutic help.
What Dreams & Nightmares Have to Say
Your nightmares might seem to only repeat your childhood trauma, similar to flashbacks. But, if you look closely, there are other added details. Your dreams might be so awful, disgusting, or frightening, that you don’t want to sleep for fear of having another one. But what do they say about the effects of childhood trauma?
You are probably asking, how could they possibly have something to say? You just want to get rid of them.
Dreams are messages from your unconscious mind. As much as this is hard to believe, they are trying to help you work out the scars left by your trauma. But, dreams and nightmares can be very scary if you think you know what they’re saying. Or have no idea at all. That’s why it’s important to get help from someone who knows.
Then you’re not alone.
Most particularly, you need help from someone who specializes in childhood trauma. You’re very likely scared to trust anyone. Especially if you’ve had failed therapy (or therapies before). And when you’ve had trauma as a child, trust isn’t easy to come by.
What Can I Do About My Trauma Now?
Psychotherapy with someone who specializes in childhood trauma is the best option. A therapist trained in psychoanalysis or psychoanalytic psychotherapy is most equipped to understand the effects of childhood trauma and the unconscious meaning of your symptoms. When you get to the root of them, you won’t continue to live this way.
It’s important to remember that what childhood trauma did to your mind doesn’t define you. It isn’t you. And it isn’t permanent. All of these effects can change.
You’ve tried control. Escape. Avoidance. These are the methods you’ve used on your own. If one of the results of your trauma is distrust of people or relationships, then relying on yourself has been your go-to option.
If so, you’ve been alone with your terror, fears, and panic. You’ve had no choice but to try to box up your feelings. But, this only ends up another form of flight. And, leaves you with your symptoms.
If you can take the risk of therapy, your therapist needs to understand and take seriously how difficult it is for you to trust. Then, psychotherapy can be a place not to be alone with your terrors, fears, and worries anymore.
- Learn to trust another person’s help
- Get to the roots of your worries and fears
- Open up the feelings you’ve hidden away
- Work out your terrors with a therapist’s support
- Begin to speak up and use your anger
- Grieve for the hurt and trauma you experienced
- Learn to feel safe with people and in the world
Life can get better. The effects of childhood trauma don’t have to live on.
I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a Los Angeles based psychologist and psychoanalyst. I specialize in childhood trauma and in helping you heal from the effects of trauma on your mind. You can get help and life can change.