I want to talk about childhood trauma and its long-term effects on people. The ideas that follow are not my own, though I may be putting them together a bit differently than others are. What I have to say here is a result of personal experience, research, one-on-one counseling, facilitating groups and my education in social work. It’s still kind of rough, but it may be of some use to you.
A good place to start is the ACES study (Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey). This is a large-scale study begun in the 1990s and continuing today. (You can find the 10-question survey here.) When the results first came in, two really surprising facts leapt out at the researchers. First, they were surprised to find how many people had suffered childhood trauma, a far greater percentage than they’d expected. Second, there was a huge, direct correlation between childhood trauma and negative health outcomes. Basically, the higher a person’s ACES score, the higher the incidence of all kinds of maladies, from diabetes to heart disease, from suicidality to depression and substance abuse. (This is a good video on it.)
In a nutshell, what we’re learning is that childhood trauma—things like having missing parents, abusive parents, substance abuse in the home, neglect—doesn’t just go away as people grow up. There are long-term repercussions. Trauma puts the child into fight-or-flight mode, the body releases stress hormones, and when a developing brain and body are exposed to those stress hormones over extended periods of time it affects everything from brain development to how cells read and transcribe DNA.
Now let’s talk about a condition most people are aware of, called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It’s not just something that soldiers get. Putting it very simply, PTSD afflicts people who go through periods of high stress and then, even when the stress has passed, continue to react and behave as if the stress is still there. The classic example is the former soldier who hears a balloon pop and reacts as if it’s a gunshot. A stimulus comes into the brain that most people would classify as harmless (balloon popping) and the brain, not having recovered from the stress, reacts as if the body is exposed to danger (adrenaline).
The basic symptoms of PTSD are: 1) re-experiencing/re-living the trauma (nightmares, unwanted thoughts you can’t get rid of); 2) hyper-arousal (overreacting to harmless stimuli); 3) avoidance (avoiding situations or people that trigger the painful memories); and, 4) feeling worse about yourself or the world (depression, paranoia).
Now, I’ve known what the symptoms of PTSD are for a while. But recently, while researching childhood trauma, I began reading up on it again and it suddenly struck me: I have all these symptoms. I’m doing a good job coping with them, but they’re there and they’re affecting me all the same. They must come from the trauma I suffered as a child (depending on how you interpret some of the questions on the ACES survey, I scored either a 6 or a 7). But why are they still so strong after all these years? It didn’t really make sense to me. I mean, I spent decades learning to forgive my father and move past what happened to me.
My research led me into learning about the human need for connection. We are highly social animals, highly motivated by our need for acceptance by other humans. This is no minor thing. I have come to believe that, after food and shelter, humans need acceptance more than anything. Being rejected by others is not just extremely painful, but was for much of our history literally a matter of life or death (if the tribe kicked you out, you were doomed).
Now let’s look at a newborn child. From the beginning, the most important people in a child’s world, the ones who that child most wants to be accepted by, are the parents. From an emotional standpoint, what the child needs most in the world is to be accepted by those people. If the parents reject the child—this could be through abuse, neglect, or even through death or divorce or any situation where one parent is absent—the child suffers trauma. (For a small child, dependent on the parents for the basics of life, it is more than just an emotional need, it’s a matter of survival. If those parents continue to reject, what will happen to the child?)
The human response to rejection is we try to regain acceptance. We smile, we placate, we demand in some cases, but we try to regain that all-important acceptance. Children do this as well. If time passes and the child is unable to regain that acceptance, he or she will look for it elsewhere, usually in other family members and then at school. If the child still can’t find it then the typical responses run from depression to rage.
But there’s more to the story explaining why this rejection is so difficult for the child. It lies in the developmental stages. Up until a certain age, children are unable to think beyond a very narrow, self-centered point of view. The ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others, to look at our world beyond our immediate point of view, is not something we develop until around adolescence.
What this means is that an adult who is abused by someone can look at it and say, this guy who did that to me has some serious problems and is taking them out on me. A child who is abused can’t make that leap. From a child’s point of view, if Mommy is hurting me, it is because I am bad. There’s no other way the child can see the situation.
To recap: the child craves acceptance by the parents. If the child gets rejection instead, she goes into stress mode, the developing brain and body being flooded on a regular basis with stress hormones. Additionally, her interpretation of the situation is that it is happening because there is something wrong with her.
So, in addition to growing up traumatized, the child also grows up believing she is fundamentally flawed (usually this is not a conscious thought, but an unconscious one). Nice little double whammy, eh?
And this stuff, if there’s no healing, doesn’t go away. The negative beliefs about the self remain. And, with the PTSD, every time the afflicted person encounters one of those popping balloons, they go right into survival mode and react as if they’re in danger.
Let me try to explain this using my life as an example.
My father screamed at me and criticized me a lot. I can count on two fingers the times I remember him approving of something I did. Nothing I did made any difference. No matter how hard I tried he was never happy (there’s the rejection by the parent). Mom tried to buffer it, but she didn’t have the strength to stand up to him.
At school I never really fit in and because we lived so far out of town I almost never got to interact with my peers outside of school. Except for a brief period in my early teens, I never had a friend I could talk to. I grew up very alone, always in fear of rejection (much of my childhood I was in stress-response mode, fearful and having no idea how to get the acceptance I needed).
Adulthood rolled around and when I was about 19 I pretty much fell apart and had an epiphany, a realization that I had to change my life or die because I couldn’t continue this way. I began trying to understand what I was feeling and find some way back to health.
And it worked. I have close friends now. I’ve been married for nearly 20 years and I love and trust my wife. I’ve got great kids that I connect with.
And yet I’ve spent my entire adult life as a people pleaser, driven by an almost insane need to make people like me. A couple years ago I realized that I was nearing 50 and I didn’t actually know who I was. I’d spent my whole life trying to be what I thought others wanted me to be and driven by a deep, underlying fear that if I slipped up, people would go back to rejecting me and I’d end up alone again and there’s no way I can go through that again.
I realized that the stress of trying to keep everyone happy all the time was wearing me out, slowly killing me. And I was (and still am, though getting better) hyper sensitive to how people were reacting to me, to the extent that one casual comment from somebody could just send me into a steep spiral of paralyzing fear.
Are you seeing how this fits together? Long term trauma (rejection at home and school) left me twitchy, prone to overreacting to otherwise-harmless stimuli (the balloon popping). It’s like I’ve developed a severe allergy. The tiniest exposure to those things I fear causes a serious reaction.
So, what’s the answer? How do we get past this?
I’m sorry to say I don’t really know. A primary treatment of PTSD is exposure therapy. Basically, it involves gradual exposure to what you fear in increasing doses in the belief that in time you will get used to it and you won’t freak out so much. Well, I’ve done that on my own. For instance, I became a teacher. I had to get up and face the possibility of rejection every hour of every school day. I don’t know about other people, but for me, personally, exposure to my fears helped some but it never made them go away.
Another common therapy is cognitive therapy, basically helping people to see how their fears are irrational so that in time they get over them. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I absolutely know my fears of rejection are totally irrational. I have lots of people that I know love me. And yet knowing this doesn’t make the fear go away. So, again, some benefits, but not a cure. At least not for me.
What I am doing, what seems to help the most, is trying to embrace the pain. I’ve spent my whole life running from my pain. I’ve convinced myself it’s no longer there, that I’m over it. But when I slowed and looked, really looked, I discovered that there’s a ton of it still there, a huge lake down deep inside. I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling that the answer lies not in avoiding the pain, but in facing it. I think I have to pass through it. I have to actually feel it.
Living with PTSD is living in the past. It means getting triggered by seemingly ordinary events that suddenly transport me back to the past. I react as if I’m still a small child. I feel as if the younger me still lives inside me and so part of my healing is to go to him and hug him and tell him he’s not alone.
I don’t know. It’s a process. I’m getting better. The fact that I can share this is proof of that. But there’s still a long way to go.
I hope this helps.