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Why Healing from Trauma Can Get Harder As We Age

Some of recovery's toughest snags start at midlife.

Key points

  • The older trauma survivors become, the fewer years they have left to repair, regain, and recover what they have lost.
  • Aging's wear-and-tear on bodies and minds are further impacted and expanded by long-term anxiety, depression, and other trauma aftereffects.
  • Age-related problems prey on survivors' already challenged self-esteem, especially in a youth-obsessed society.

Rather than get easier with time, trauma recovery can feel like a lifelong trek that grows ever steeper as we age. Here's why:

1. Toxic toolboxes.

Trauma survivors tend to lack certain essential life skills such as self-confidence and trust.

Denied these, some of us forged other coping strategies — dissociation, hypervigilance, addiction, freeze, fawn, fight, or flight — to help endure terror and shame.

This made us old while young yet muddled our maturity. So adult life often resembles running races blindfolded, with both arms bound behind our backs.

Survivors often struggle to complete seemingly simple tasks while feeling stuck on repeat, bypassed by peers, and are prone to procrastination, perfectionism, and quitting.

With age, those uncompleted tasks and unattained accomplishments become an ever-longer list, which saps our already scant self-esteem and sense of hope.

We start thinking in sums: The older we become, the fewer future years remain in which to repair, regain or recover what we never had or what we lost.

Calculating the time, effort, and money we've spent thus far on recovery, we tell ourselves it's been too much, it's too late, and if we're not fixed yet, we will never be.

2. Burnout.

The standard travails of adulting — work, relationships, responsibilities — grow even more exhausting when impacted by post-trauma syndromes such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, isolation, and anhedonia.

Studies suggest that childhood trauma survivors "age faster" biologically than other people, as revealed by changes in the cells and brain.

Aging is itself traumatic. Vigor, wit, fantasies, fitness fading — feeling hideous and useless in a youth-worshipping culture — we attend more funerals ever.

3. "Act your age."

Trauma recovery requires feeling and releasing solid emotions — some of which have thus far stayed repressed, suppressed, as yet unfelt.

But although solid emotions are to some extent accepted in the young, at midlife, and beyond, society expects us to be quiet, calm, invisible, reserved.

Yet this is when survivors face some of the toughest challenges and breakthroughs — because simply being certain ages can be triggering.

Reaching the same age as our traumatizers were while traumatizing us, we wonder: Do I now resemble them? Would I/could I do now what they did then?

4. "I'll give you something to cry about."

Aging brings aches and pains ... which we catastrophize.

Trauma that took the form of punishment ("You earned this spanking, smartass") and/or shamed us for expressing pain ("Man up!") makes us mistranslate age-related troubles into just deserts.

My knees are stiff because I'm bad. I'm getting worse at chess because I'm bad. I require insulin because I ate wrong all my life, so now I'm deservedly doomed.

5. Hello, again.

Many survivors who have long grappled with parent issues become, at a certain age, in some regard responsible for those same parents, who can no longer care for themselves.

Such survivors muse: The life of someone who harmed me forty years ago is in my hands. Am I supposed to pity, forgive, and help this individual who never once apologized?

However old we are, our traumatizers are likely our age or older — thus lacking the energy and/or cognitive powers to re-examine, much less regret, their pasts. They might, in fact, now expect from us extra respect, empathy, and love.

Whatever strengths and self-compassion we have gathered — fought for — thus far on the healing path: We need them more than ever now.

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