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Coping as an Adult When Childhood Trauma Made You Suppress Emotions

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233. You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

With complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), some children who were subjected to chronic, unpredictable stress were often taught through verbal and physical discipline, along with humiliation, their appropriate emotional response to such stimuli were unacceptable.

As they grew into adolescence, when they exhibited their appropriate emotional response to the continued chronic unpredictable stress, they might have been told they were out of control, hormonal, rebellious teenagers and were again subjected to disciplinary measures and humiliation by family members, peers and authority figures in school, religion and, sometimes law enforcement. As adults, they may have learned, through negative reinforcement throughout their childhood, to keep their emotional responses to a minimum.

Later, in the lives of these people, when they went to medical and mental health professionals for help with the manifestation of their C-PTSD, possibly in the forms of depression, anxiety and physical ailments, they may have finally discovered the root cause of all of their mental and physical symptoms. This would be the chronic unpredictable stress they endured, along with the repression of what would have been the appropriate emotional response.

Unfortunately, upon finding out the root cause, they may become more assertive with family members, friends and authority figures, such as supervisors and religious leaders, along with any medical and mental health practitioners who lack training in C-PTSD, as they try to advocate for the treatment they need for recovery and healing. And they may experience being shut down by dismissive comments and eventual rejection because this appropriate emotional response is, once again, considered inappropriate.

How, then, do we heal? We are told by positive thinkers we need to stop seeking validation outside of ourselves. We are told by these people to stop our negative thinking and give others the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, we are told by these very same people we are social animals, we need others to survive, we are all connected and all you need is love.

If the second half is true, that we are social animals who need others to survive, we are all connected and need to give and receive love, external validation becomes essential to our survival. When it is lacking, it is very hard to avoid suspicion and distrust to give others the benefit of the doubt. Metaphorically, if a pack animal is unaccepted within the pack, it will either develop a sense of suspicion and distrust toward creatures in its environment to survive or it will die.

So, again, I ask, how do we heal? It’s a tough question with tough and seemingly limited solutions. The following is what has helped me:

To start, a mental health therapist trained in C-PTSD and its treatment modalities was and remains imperative. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was definitely a very positive step which helped me more and in a shorter amount of time than any treatment I had received in the 30 years prior.

Reading the following books were definitely helpful in understanding and giving myself compassion:

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.

Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal” by Donna Jackson Nakazawa.

Jordan B. Peterson’s Self-Authoring Suite has been invaluable in guiding me to help get my past out of my head and doing an honest self-assessment of my strengths and weaknesses through written exercises. It will continue to be instrumental in putting into writing a plan for my life worth living.

And using the Neurocycle app created by Dr. Caroline Leaf after reading her book, “Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess: 5 Simple, Scientifically Proven Steps to Reduce Anxiety, Stress, and Toxic Thinking has given me a tangible way to change my thinking processes.

Even with all of this, there are still days when life gets overwhelming and I feel very alone. It’s times like these when I sit down and write the articles I submit to The Mighty in hopes my experiences can somehow make a positive difference in the world.

Unsplash image by Caroline Hernandez

Originally published: September 12, 2021
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