The Very Real Impact of Childhood Trauma

A Guide to Understanding Trauma

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Over the last few months more and more patients are coming in for therapy to address issues related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the impacts of childhood trauma. Somehow, people in their 40s and 50s are being told for the very first time, after struggling for many years, that they suffer from this horrible illness commonly referred to as PTSD. Many look at me with relief in their eyes because now that they know what to call it, and together we can begin to address it and finally, finally improve their lives. Trauma can affect us in so many ways and can make life really tough for those affected by it. Our mood, our relationships with others and our ability to cope with day to day stresses are on the line when we’re living with the impact of childhood trauma. Tools such as the ACES (Adverse Childhood Experience Screener) are becoming more commonly utilized by medical and mental health care providers to encourage patients to explore and address these issues. The good news is that there are ways to lessen the negative effects of PTSD . However, first we need to understand it a little bit better. Here are a few of the most common ways that PTSD presents itself in people:

1. Strong reactions to perceived adversity: Have you ever been in line at the grocery store, trying very hard to avert your eyes from a woman in line who is cursing and yelling at the cashier over a problem at checkout? Most of us have been there, and it can be really hard to sympathize with a person who loses control like that in a public place. But in situations like that, it’s essential that we ask ourselves “what traumatic experience might this person have encountered in their life?” People who’ve experienced trauma often have difficulty in situations where they feel out of control and when things don’t go their way. For most of us, when life throws us a curveball, we can find a way to work through the unpredictable moment, but it’s not always as easy for a person whose been exposed to danger and intense fear in situations when they should have been safe. As hard as it can be, keeping this in mind the next time you face an interaction like this can make a huge difference in the outcome.

2. Challenging interpersonal relationships: Connecting to new people and developing those relationships can be really hard for a person whose been exposed to trauma early in their lives. How could I possibly trust someone new when I’ve been so let down before? It can be really hard for people with PTSD to build new friendships and open themselves up in the ways we expect people to, so keep this in mind when encountering individuals who have trouble relating to you as a friend or partner. While it isn’t easy, it is possible to connect with trustworthy and sympathetic people over time.

3. Just because it looks like anger, doesn’t mean it is: In my experience treating people with PTSD, anger is often their “go to” emotional response to adversity. This can be really challenging for the friends and family member of a person with PTSD, but patience and understanding goes a long way. People who’ve been exposed to trauma as children often learned their behavior from their abusers and remembering this is helpful. I often work with clients on identifying their emotions before reacting, because feelings like hurt, frustration, fear and loneliness can translate into anger very quickly. Learning to “name the feeling” first can help solicit a more appropriate reaction.

4. Anxiety can be debilitating: Many of my clients have missed out of job opportunities and friendships because of their intense anxiety. Some even have difficulty doing things that everyone else does daily, like riding the subway and picking up the mail from the lobby mailbox. These can be very isolating experiences. Treatment modalities like Exposure Therapy can be helpful, as well as developing effective coping strategies and relaxation techniques to help make it easier to manage your anxiety. Taking control of your anxiety and finding ways to reduce its impact on your life is hard, but possible.

The sad reality is that trauma is a part of life for many people. This can include child abuse, exposure to domestic violence, sexual abuse, war, natural disaster and many other experiences that are far too common. Many with trauma-related disorders go far too long without treatments to make their lives much easier and more enjoyable. To make it worse, the symptoms make it even harder to connect with the people and professionals that might be able to best help. My goal is writing this article is to remind you all that those impacted by childhood trauma are not at fault for their experiences and should not shy away from seeking help in order to improve their lives. 

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