How Childhood Trauma Affects Me Now as an Adult
If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
During childhood, the time from birth through adolescence, a child’s body is in a constant state of growth. Many times disruptions can happen to that biological development, especially when the child grows up in an environment where they are living in a constant state of stress. The growth of the child’s immune system and learned stress responses may not develop normally under these conditions. Later in life, as the child or adult experiences ordinary levels of stress, the child may respond as though they are under extreme stress even when provoked by the smallest thing. One of my therapists used to call this a state of “hypervigilance.”
The term hypervigilance is simply an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity. Often it’s accompanied by exaggerated intensity of behaviors designed to detect activity and may bring about a state of increased anxiety which causes exhaustion.
The child or even the adult may respond physically with symptoms such as rapid breathing, heart pounding or they may shut down entirely when presented with a stressful situation. Full-blown panic attacks can ensue when triggered by a memory. This is why many of us that grew up in a household of extreme stress and turmoil not only developed borderline personality disorder (BPD) we also have a propensity towards panic disorder as well. For me, these two disorders link at my very core. I am not a psychologist or a therapist this is just my personal opinion from having lived with both my whole life.
The fight-or-flight response is a hyper arousal, or acute stress response. Hypervigilance is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack or threat to one’s survival — whether it is physical or emotional.
You realize later on in life, as you begin to surround yourself with others, that your responses are out of proportion in context to the normal person’s stress response. People tend to see your actions and responses as overreacting, being melodramatic, or that you are a drama queen. I have been called all of those things throughout my life.
When a child grows up with a lot stress and turmoil in their environment, it unfortunately can impair both their brain development and their nervous system. Children with complex trauma histories such as mine may develop chronic physical complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches. I remember having migraine headaches as early as 5 years old. I always had stomachaches during my childhood. This carried on into adulthood, where those of us with histories of trauma in childhood have more chronic physical conditions and digestive problems. I have since developed ulcers, bleeding ulcers, GERD, fibromyalgia, psoriasis of the skin, continued with migraine headaches and have a very weak immune system. When you throw in the fact that many of us who have lived through traumatic events tend to compound the condition through smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs, even more of a toll bestows on the physical body and our ability to function at a normal capacity reduces further. Let’s not forget to throw in eating disorders on top of this.
Traumatized youth frequently suffer from excessive response or lowered response to sensory stimuli as we live our lives. For example, we may be hypersensitive to sounds, smells, touch or light. We also suffer from an impaired pain response. As a result of this impaired response, we may injure ourselves without feeling pain, suffer from physical problems without being aware of them, or, we may complain of chronic pain in various body areas for which no physical cause is evident.
On days when I am overtired, overstimulated, have a migraine or am suffering a fibromyalgia flare up, I am very sensitive to noise, light, movement, someone chewing food for example or any loud noise that would enhance my startled reflexes.
On days such as those, I very seldom go out, as the stimulus from the world around me is just too much to bear. Being in a crowded restaurant or a shopping mall can throw me over the edge on those days. It is very difficult to explain this to others unless they have experienced it. Those of us that have are keenly aware of the responses and fully understand the incapacity to engage on days when it’s just too much.
Children who have experienced complex trauma often have difficulty managing emotions — say hello to my borderline personality disorder! We try to internalize or externalize stress reactions and as a result may experience uncontrollable crying jags, depression, anxiety or anger. For those of us who have acquired BPD, we may find that our emotional responses may be unpredictable or explosive. We may overreact to a reminder of a traumatic event with trembling, anger, sadness or avoidance. This reaction can point to PTSD. For a child who grew up with complex trauma, reminders of various traumatic events may be everywhere in the environment. We may often react powerfully when triggered by something that reminds us of our traumatic upbringing and have difficulty calming down when upset.
Since traumas are often of an interpersonal nature, even mildly stressful interactions with others may serve as trauma reminders and trigger intense emotional responses from those of us who grew up in these intense situations. Having learned that the world is a dangerous place where even we can’t even trust our loved to protect us, children like me have suffered through these experiences and are often vigilant and guarded in their interactions with others and are more likely to perceive situations as stressful or dangerous. While this defensive posture exists when an individual is under attack, it’s an ongoing problem in normal everyday situations, which does not warrant such intense reactions.
Another escape route children use in response to trauma is disassociation. This is where we tune out (emotional numbing) in our heads and completely move out of the situation in our mind. This may be as a response to threats in the environment that make us feel vulnerable to re-victimization.
Difficulty managing emotions also goes along with never learning how to calm ourselves down once we are upset. Especially with a lack of self-soothing mechanisms we didn’t acquire during our childhood. When we are unable to self-soothe so we can become easily overwhelmed. For example, in school a child may become so frustrated that they give up on even small tasks that present a challenge.
Children such as these who have experienced early and intense traumatic events also have an increased likelihood of being fearful all the time and in a variety of situations. The way I found to cope with this as a child, was through my experience of OCD. During my childhood, I would do repetitive actions, wear a certain piece of clothing or jewelry or I would have to perform tasks in a ritualistic way, thinking it would ensure a particular outcome. For example, if I wore my silver hoop earrings that day, it would keep me safe. When I couldn’t use my OCD magical thinking to secure a safety wall in my mind, I became very agitated, frustrated, angry and flew into a hysterical fits of rage. I was truly convinced that these magical things would keep me safe from harm. Later on in my adult life I thrusted those same OCD magical thoughts as I felt they would keep my daughter safe. It was a very difficult thing for me to overcome in my life. I still find now occasionally, under severe stress or pressure, I will subconsciously resort to using these tactics as a fallback or safety net in my mind.
Childhood trauma made simple things in my life into hellish triggers. For example, my father was a concert pianist. He was well known throughout the music community and taught at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music when I was growing up. He would often have me go to concerts, especially classical music, operas and things of that nature that would expose me to the world of music from his eyes.
My mother was an opera singer and soloist for any of the churches or establishments where my father played the piano or organ on a regular basis. We had a full pipe organ in our living room, along with a Steinway grand piano along with my Piano down in the basement. They started me out with piano lessons at the age of 3.
Because my father was a perfectionist and a relentless taskmaster when it came to my practicing or getting ready for a performance, it became a time of pure hell for me. He would scream in anger and beat the piano, or me, if I did not perform up to par. I remember spending hours in the basement as a child, having to play the same part of the music over again until I would play it correctly. Many times, I would rip up my music books and throw them across the room. I would take a pen, scribble all over the music, and stab the book repeatedly, with intense anger and frustration, trying to kill the source of my torture.
A result of my desensitization to music in general, especially classical music because of this experience, I stopped the lessons as soon as I could. This caused my father to give up his frustrated dream of making me into a concert pianist. For many years of my adult life, I would have nothing to do with any music. Certain classical songs would trigger me, and even do so to this day. I can shut down and not be able to listen or enjoy the music.
Believe it or not, although I do love music from classical to jazz to Motown, Pop and all types, I would very seldom ever allow myself to listen to music while driving in the car or just listening in general. If I did, it would have to be at the volume of a whisper or I couldn’t handle it. My husband thought I was crazy but it was a genuinely horrific trigger for me. Thankfully, as I am writing this, this is the first year in my entire life that I have been able to allow music back in as a form of soothing and pleasure, or enjoyment. It is truly the first time in my life that I have been able to use music to soothe myself. Perhaps enough time elapsed that I was able to open that door again.
I’m being very specific in sharing with you my experience in one arena of my life where childhood trauma ruined me for many years. If you are like me, a child of trauma, then you get it and you understand. What is it that your childhood trauma took away from you? Was it the enjoyment of sex? The inability to trust in a relationship? The incapacity to let your guard down around members of the opposite sex if you were abused?
My challenge to you is to not give in or give up what the inflictor of your childhood trauma tried to steal from your life. Don’t do as I did and shut down and stay away from something for so many years that could give you pleasure in your life. It was always on the back burner for me because it wasn’t an actual interference in my life. Perhaps your experience does interfere with living day-to-day. That is even more wrong and more of a reason to address the childhood trauma head on.
I wish you many prayers, hope and want you to know that I am with you on the journey.
Unsplash photo via Norman Toth