What is childhood trauma?
How does our childhood trauma affect adulthood?
And how do we heal from our childhood trauma now as adults?
Most if not all of us have experienced some kind of trauma in our life, but not everyone will see it as a trauma.
Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.
There are many types of trauma. When we think of trauma, most people will think of painful and life-threatening experiences such as abuse, car accident, natural disaster, or war.
But trauma can also be a result of the unexpected death of someone close, betrayal, and medical procedures. It could also occur when we witness a traumatic event or see someone else go through a life-threatening experience.
What Is Childhood Trauma and Some Examples of It?
Childhood trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing event we experienced in childhood. On top of all the traumas that were mentioned previously, it also includes experiences that we don’t normally consider as trauma as adults.
It is not limited to those unpleasant things that were done to us as a kid such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, and bullying in school. Childhood trauma can also occur when nothing is done to us. For example, when we are physically or emotionally neglected, or when our childhood needs aren’t met.
We can experience childhood trauma when we don’t feel safe too. For example, if we have parents who are chronically ill or divorced, and we are uncertain if they will be gone. Or when we are given adult responsibility as a kid. Like in my case, I was traumatized when I was tasked to keep my class quiet by my teacher.
A kid gets overwhelmed and distressed easily.
Anything that comes as a shock or makes you feel helpless is usually traumatic. And for a child who is only a few months or years old, this could be anything.
Whether an event is traumatic or not doesn’t depend on the event itself. It depends on how someone copes with the event at the point in time. It’s how stressful the event is to the individual.
Something that doesn’t feel traumatizing to an adult can be traumatizing to a child because the child is not equipped to deal with such situations yet. For instance, an adult who falls down from a bicycle might not feel it’s traumatic, while a kid who falls down from a bicycle might not want to ride a bicycle ever again.
If the parents or caretakers aren’t sensitive enough to recognize the distress and soothe the child, the child might not know how to discharge the trapped energy in the body. He or she then carries the unresolved emotions such as stress, anxiety, shame, guilt, fear, grief, and anger into adulthood.
Effect of Childhood Trauma in Adulthood
There is actually no need to resolve our childhood trauma. What had happened in the past is in the past. It doesn’t represent who we are right now. Plus, who enjoys digging up their terrifying past and reliving it again?
The only reason why we have to address our childhood trauma is that it is affecting our adult lives. As a child, we have developed some coping strategies to deal with our distress. Now that we are adults, we are still using the same strategies when we interact with others and the world. We are not aware that we are no longer the child that is facing a threatening situation.
These strategies, habits, and behaviors that we have grown used to might not be effective or no longer make sense to us now. In fact, they are keeping us from growing to our full potential.
They create obstacles and make us avoid things that are related to our past trauma. We numb ourselves from emotions or put them aside and wonder why we can’t connect deeply with others in relationships. We have difficulty trusting other people and feel a need to be hypervigilance and constantly on guard. In a relationship, we subconsciously date people who are bad for us because we are drawn to them or we avoid relationships altogether.
The freedom that we desire cannot be experienced
when we have so many blockages in our lives.
We can’t go where we want to go in life freely when our lives are all about protecting ourselves from re-experiencing the trauma.
Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults
When we don’t identify and confront our childhood trauma, sometimes it limits us and our ability to do great things. The low self-esteem, codependency, or mental illnesses that we experience as a result of our childhood trauma prevent us from living a life that we deserve.
Not to mention, for some of us, the nightmares, night terrors, sleep paralysis, flashbacks, that we experience which affects our quality of life and sleep greatly. Other physical and emotional symptoms from childhood trauma include:
- Chronic exhaustion and pain,
- Anxiety and panic attacks,
- Body numbness and dissociation,
- Anger and emotional outbursts,
- Trust issues,
- Low self-esteem,
- Control issues, and etc.
When we can’t repress these painful memories anymore and they keep resurfacing in adulthood, that’s the time to be courageous and deal with the childhood trauma head-on, and mindfulness can help with that.
How Can Mindfulness Help You to Heal From Childhood Trauma
Mindfulness is the state of being in the present moment while accepting your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judging them. But it is not the only tool to heal your childhood trauma. Everyone’s relationship with their childhood trauma is different. It’s not only because what we experience is different, but the way we perceive and cope with the experience is different too. So the healing process also varies from people to people.
Some people will resonate with mindfulness, while others don’t.
If you have tried mindfulness and it doesn’t work for you or even worse, you find it triggering rather than helpful, you might have practiced mindfulness incorrectly. But don’t give up, try other tools instead. There are many other methods to overcome childhood trauma in adults, for example, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), art therapy, somatic experiencing, yoga, various types of psychotherapy, and etc.
Here are some books on healing trauma that you can read too.
Some are top-down approaches which work on the thinking brain first, while others are bottom-up approaches that deal with the bodily sensations first. For some people, a combination of two or more methods might help. Mindfulness practices can also be used together with some of the other methods too.
But for the purpose of this blog post, the focus is on how we can better use mindfulness to help overcome childhood trauma in adults. Here are some pointers.
1. Mindfulness helps you to discern the present moment and your past.
Even though mindfulness is about observing your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, it’s very much rooted in the present moment. If you are mindful and you have an anxiety or panic attack, you are aware that you are not in your past. You know that something triggers you and causes your body to react the same way you had previously reacted when you were a child. But you know that the traumatic event is not happening now at the present moment. You are not facing any threat now even though it feels like it.
In other words, mindfulness helps you to create some space between your childhood trauma and your present self. Instead of re-experiencing your childhood trauma and get lost in it, you are able to separate between the past and the present moment. You know that what you are remembering is just part of your memory and a recreation of the past. It’s not exactly the situation you are in right now.
You know that your childhood trauma is resolved
if you are remembering it instead of re-experiencing it.
When you practice mindfulness for a long time, you will develop enough space around your childhood trauma. You will then be able to talk about it without feeling overwhelmed by intense emotions. It’s as though you are telling a narrative instead of telling it like you are still experiencing the trauma. It’s as though you are watching a movie and you have compassion and empathy for the character but you know that you are not the character.
So it’s important to ground yourself in the present moment and be mindful before you explore your past. If not, you can get lost in your past very quickly.
For more information on mindfulness, you can read my book, Empty Your Cup.
2. Mindfulness helps you feel everything as it is.
Most adults living with childhood trauma use the same coping strategy that they used as a child which is to avoid anything that might trigger their unwelcome emotions and trauma. However, doing so, the suppressed and unprocessed emotions since childhood stay stuck in the body and never get a chance to be released.
Mindfulness works differently. It allows you to feel everything as it is and not judge your experience and emotions as good or bad. When there is discomfort, you don’t run away from it. Even though mindfulness doesn’t help you to stop the discomfort in the body, you naturally feel relieved when you allow the emotions to move through you.
Emotions don’t last forever.
But any judgment disrupts the natural flow of energy.
When you judge your emotions instead of embracing them, your body will tighten and prevent the emotion from surfacing and flowing naturally. But emotion is energy. Judging them blocks their natural pathway in, through, and out of your body. When they get stuck in your body, they might create chronic illnesses and pain.
Also, reliving your childhood trauma might cause you to judge yourself or other people. For example, when you think about your childhood abuse, you might blame yourself or the abuser for what happened. The angry thoughts of wanting revenge or self-shaming thoughts keep looping in your head. This causes more unwanted emotions to surface and add more suffering to you as compared to just mindfully witnessing what is without judgment.
Mindfulness helps you to notice but not participate in adding more unnecessary thoughts or ruminations to your traumatic experience. Emotions and bodily sensations are more manageable when you feel everything as it is than when you built them up and accumulated them over time. In addition, when you practice mindfulness and process your emotions often, your ability to self-regulate your emotions improve. So it feels easier to handle emotions as they come.
3. Mindfulness helps you to be non-reactive.
When faced with triggers or events that are similar to our childhood trauma, we tend to adopt one of the fight, flight, or freeze responses immediately. Practice mindfulness helps us to create a gap between our habitual reaction and our intended action. It gives us the time to process the situation before acting.
So for example, if you have been verbally abused by your parents in the past, any criticism from others might cause you to lash out or become defensive. But if you have practiced mindfulness long enough, you will have this awareness of the triggers and your reactive pattern. Just before you lash out on others, you can see that lashing out is not how you wish to respond to the current situation. It’s just a defensive mechanism. And so you stop yourself before you do something that you later regret.
That 0.1 seconds gap before you react makes all the difference.
It gives you a sense of control.
When you don’t have mindfulness, you keep acting the same way. You might punish yourself later for losing your cool or you might get stuck in a certain emotion for a long time. The worst thing is, subconsciously, you feel that you are out of control. You don’t why you did what you did and you just react to the situation.
On the contrary, mindfulness gives you a sense of control because you are able to choose your response. You feel the urge to be defensive but at the same time, you can also tell that it’s a reaction to a trigger and not what you intended to do. So at that moment, you are given a choice — either express your anger or accept the criticism.
Even if you choose anger, at least you feel a sense of control and empowerment because you know that you have a choice. You are not reacting automatically based on your habits.
4. Mindfulness helps you to have compassion for your inner child.
As children, we don’t know how to discern what’s right or wrong. If we were abused or neglected and we were told that it’s our fault, we would quickly assume the blame and believe that it’s our fault. Even if no one said that it’s our fault, we might also interpret that we are the cause of the abuse or neglect because we can’t make sense of what happened.
Mindfulness gives you the wisdom of discernment and helps you develop self-compassion. Not only do you understand that what happened in the past is not your fault, but when you look at your past with mindfulness, you begin to feel for your inner child. You observe all the emotions your inner child feels without judging or suppressing them.
You realize that as a child you don’t have the words
and skills to process your emotions.
So there’s nothing to be ashamed of for having unresolved emotions in adulthood. We all have some emotions that we carried from the past that we didn’t process completely. With mindfulness and emotion regulation skills though, we can start to help the inner child process and release the unresolved anger and grief by providing a safe space for it to share its emotions.
Having compassion for yourself is different from being a victim. People who feel compassionate for themselves comes from a state of mindfulness. You understand the pain and trauma that your inner child has gone through and you help to uplift the inner child.
On the other hand, people who feel like they are a victim of their childhood trauma isn’t aware that they are no longer the child that they once used to be. They aren’t able to separate their true self with their inner child. They are their inner child — powerless and victimized. So no compassion can come forth from a place of self-pity.
For more information on how to be compassionate to your inner child, you can read my book, Parent Yourself Again.
Featured Photo Credit: Oleksandr Pidvalnyi