What is Childhood Trauma?

Trauma in Ancient Greek means wound. It can be a single event (death of a loved one, divorce, injury, illness, natural disaster, terrorism, moving to a new location) or repeated traumatic experiences. I will focus on repeated traumatic experiences that happen in childhood, overwhelming the child and pushing them to build coping mechanisms that can become unhealthy once the child becomes an adult. Abuse or abandonment triggers the fight/flight response which is a natural response of humans to counter danger but repeated abuse activates the flight/flight response repeatedly leaving the nervous system unable to turn itself off. Even when the child becomes an adult, triggers can easily activate this fight/flight, freeze or collapse response signalling to the brain there is imminent danger even though it is not the case.

Personally, trauma has impacted me in many different ways over the years. I stayed silent in shame with hurt as disempowering as it was invisible. I have decided to reclaim my voice. It is not easy though. In my blog posts, I will talk about different issues around childhood trauma and some pathways to healing. Trauma affects people differently and pathways to healing are personal and different for each person.

I kept my struggles private, suffering alone and feeling like everyone was happy and knew what they were doing in their lives while I was lost, could not be happy and felt empty and hopeless. It is only in the last year that I met a therapist who recommended I read Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman that I had my first AHA moment, I had to read this book slowly because of how triggering it was. It was just as if someone cracked my head open and wrote a book about my character trait and deepest shameful thoughts. Dr Herman explains trauma not only at the individual level but also at the societal level. From there, I found The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk. These two books made me understand that I went through childhood trauma and I have been suffering the effects of it. It was L-I-B-E-R-A-T-I-N-G to see my thought processes, feelings that made me isolate myself for years, the toxic shame, guilt, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness described, seen and validated by people who did not even know of my existence. I have since found podcasts, delved into the Adverse Childhood Study (ACEs study) and taken the ACEs test (I will discuss this in another blog post).

The few people who saw how much emotional pain I was carrying gave me advice that further reinforced my sense of shame of not being able to cope:

“that was a long time ago, just get over it”, “just move on with your life”, “see how much you’ve accomplished, where are those people who hurt you today?”, “You have to give yourself to Christ”, “time will heal it all”.

It did not comfort me to hear this, I felt misunderstood, not seen. And it is normal: time alone does not heal the wounds left by childhood adverse experiences. Trauma is pain caused in a relationship (e.g with a bully, a parent, an uncle, an auntie, a neighbour) and the healing also happens in a relationship. Knowing that someone has our back and cares deeply about us can help us heal, be it a parent, therapist, a friend, God, god, partner, etc. In a safe relationship, we can then embark to work on our trauma, disentangle the mechanisms we developed to survive the trauma that is holding us back as adults.

I am grateful that I am slowly able to make any meaning of my childhood trauma and its effect on my present life. The first step is acknowledging that my difficult childhood was traumatic with lasting consequences. I wanted to be normal and just thought it was my fault if I was not coping with life like the people around me. When I met people I felt I could trust, I told them about a sanitised version of my life and most of the time, people listened, empathised with me and then focused on the present. I found myself unable to join them, stuck in a past as vivid in my mind as yesterday even though some events were more than 20 years old. Trauma does that, it holds one prisoner of the past, unable to connect fully with the present and with oneself.

I did not understand how stuck I was in the past and how it was stopping me from engaging in the present and holding me back from living my life. For example, when friends or family discussed “what should we buy for our barbecue on Saturday? Should we get beer, wine?….”. I would zone out of such conversations I found very boring. I felt the need to talk about my past because it was my present and the real present did not matter to me. The past blocked me from forging deeper meaningful relationships, sharing my feelings, being vulnerable. I did not even know it was acceptable to show “negative emotions”. When I felt these feelings, which was very often, I isolated myself and only showed myself to my friends if I could put on my public mask. I also set extreme standards for my physical body and outward appearance to maintain this mask.The world felt unsafe and I feared rejection.

Being maltreated as a child and being neglected induced a double blow to my soul and dignity. I felt I was a faulty human being (convinced something was wrong with me) and so I deserved the abuse. With the neglect, I did not know what love, feelings, boundaries, hugs were. I had this deep-seated belief that I was not lovable, I did not deserve love. To compensate, I kept overachieving but not feeling fulfilled, all my achievements could not fill the gaping hole in my soul. As a child, I was jealous of peers who had parents, who were nurtured or loved. What was their secret, what did they have that I did not have to deserve to be loved?

As an adult, trauma has left my brain firing (or misfiring) and reacting as if I was in danger many years after I had left the traumatic situations. A traumatised brain has a library of past traumatic events in the amygdala (limbic system), at the back of the brain and when a traumatised person feels threatened, the amygdala reactivates the stored memory leading to an emotional flashback. Now this reaction can be helpful if one is in danger of being eaten by a lion but with trauma, one can be triggered by loud noises, someone avoided eye contact, a smell etc. The brain overreacts, believing it is under severe threat and the frontal part that processes information and let you make rational decisions shuts down leaving the person to make fast, short-sighted decisions, thus reacting out of proportion. The activated amygdala is incapable of distinguishing between present and past danger, this type of information is processed in the front (cortex -rational part) of the brain. The problem is having these intense reactions when there is no danger in sight anymore. The person living with a traumatic past develops hypervigilance allowing them to scan their environment for any sensation that reminds them of the trauma. Exhausting right? While a normal brain is wired for exploration, trauma rewires the brain for protection. For me, I saw danger everywhere and my greatest struggle was to find safety. I did/do not believe my friends really wanted to be friends with me, a text that goes unanswered for a few hours drives me into thinking I must have done something wrong and the person doesn’t want to be my friend anymore for example.

Trauma left me with low self esteem, social anxiety, fear of abandonment, disconnection from myself, emotional flashbacks, a dictatorial inner critic who spoke to me as to a piece of garbage, self loathing, fear of bad things happening, isolation, trying to suppress my emotions at all cost, difficulty loving or accepting love, difficulty asking or accepting help, and a distorted self-image.

It looks bleak but no need to despair. Why? Because healing is hard work but possible. Healthy connections to others does wonders in the healing trauma. Trauma survivors don’t have to be stuck in the past, they can build a new sense of self that connects them to the present so that their lives don’t pass them by. The brain is plastic and can be rewired and new circuits created. Triggers, limiting self beliefs can be identified and worked on, etc. For me, the first step was awareness of what childhood trauma was and its consequences. Therapy and reading have been helping me work through the emotions and develop self-awareness. Since trauma remains in the body (the body keeps the score in the words of Bessel Van Der Kolk), I am trying to exercise regularly. Recent studies have shown that yoga is very effective in treating trauma. Meditation, medication, breath work, tapping, dance, stretching, tai chi, art, theatre, journaling faith in God, spirituality, inner child work are some of things used for healing.

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