The holidays represent many things to many people: for some, joy, closeness, and family; but for others, the season may be tinged with sadness, loss, and distress. For those who have experienced childhood trauma, the holidays are often a time of grief, as thoughts about what has been lost or missed can surface, darkening the merry lens. Understanding how one may be affected by childhood trauma in adulthood and especially during the end of the year is important to get through with minimal distress. Keep a toolbox ready for trauma-connected thoughts and behaviors, this can help mitigate the harm to oneself as well.
What is childhood trauma?
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), childhood trauma comes about in the wake of frightening, dangerous, or violent experiences. These events are sometimes referred to as ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences, and include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; physical and emotional neglect; abuse of a parent; substance use or mental illness within the home, parental separation or divorce, incarceration, and more. Around one in seven children are exposed to abuse or neglect each year, according to SAMHSA, and the signs of traumatic stress will differ from child to child, and may include behavioral changes, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, difficulty in school, or social struggles. Children who have experienced prior traumatic events may be more susceptible to the effects; in many ways, trauma can be cumulative over time. The NCTSN further describes other factors that may determine the impact of a traumatic event include the severity of the event, the closeness of the child to the event, the response of the caregivers, and other family and community related factors, such as culture, qualities and resources, or experiences connected to racism or discrimination.
How does childhood trauma manifest in adulthood?
The impact of childhood trauma often rears its head in adulthood, often shaping relationship patterns and leading to the development of issues such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Romantic relationships are one place the impact is often felt, as childhood trauma can negatively impact the way one forms attachments later in life. Attachment is usually described as secure, ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized, with secure being the healthiest and the other three often seen in survivors or childhood trauma through behaviors such as reluctance to get close to people, worry of abandonment, or taking on parental roles in relationships. Survivors of childhood trauma remain more likely to develop some chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or heart disease, and are more likely to use alcohol and other substances, according to this Cleveland Clinic Podcast. This podcast explored the potential as well that one’s brain development can be impacted by trauma, leading to important recognitions that could advance research and how we treat childhood trauma in adults.
Coping with trauma responses
Fortunately, there is a lot one can do to mitigate the impact of trauma. According to the National Center for PTSD, some of the key elements to active recovery are understanding that:
- Having an ongoing response to one’s traumatic experience is normal
- Recovery isn’t a one-time thing, it's ongoing and not always linear
- Healing doesn’t equal forgetting
- Healing sometimes means fewer symptoms, and sometimes means they just have less of an impact
- Healing is about building confidence that you can manage your response.
A great first step is to make oneself aware of some of the common ways trauma may manifest itself. Unwanted distressing memories or images, rapid breathing, light-headedness, or a racing heart are all common trauma-connected experiences and, although they are not dangerous, they can make it hard to function. When considering the best way to understand how to get through this time of year, it helps to be aware of situations, settings, and people that may trigger unwanted trauma-connected responses, such as guilt, shame, or feelings of being unsafe, or the common trauma responses listed above. Taking time to think through these triggers can help one avoid or prepare to face them during the holidays.
Once aware of ways one might feel, one tremendous way to lessen physiological response to triggers is to learn how to calm the body through relaxation methods. This can be a dedicated activity, such as a guided progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or another activity that promotes the movement of and tension release within the body, such as breathing exercises, swimming or yoga, listening to music, or spending time outside.
Another way to help stave off unwanted reactions is to work with a counselor or other mental health professional to understand and change negative core beliefs stemming from one’s experiences. For example, trauma can lead to thoughts such as, “I’m not good enough,” “I don’t deserve good things,” or other limiting beliefs. Working with a mental health professional to identify and change these beliefs may help start to shift shame and guilt to empowerment and confidence.
Understanding childhood trauma and its impact is key to healing. Fortunately, armed with information and skills for coping, one can work through unwanted trauma responses and thrive. Happiness shouldn't be dependent on one’s past experiences, and with a little time, effort, and patience with oneself, the road to healing can begin now.