Was your childhood filled with loss, pain, or scarcity? Do you struggle with ongoing difficult thoughts, unwanted feelings, or coping behaviors because of the things that happened to you during your childhood? If so, you may be an adult survivor of childhood trauma.
Much like throwing a stone into a pond, painful childhood experiences can continue to ripple and affect you well into adulthood. But that doesn’t happen because you’re weak, bad, ruined, or broken. It happens because you’re having a completely appropriate response to an intensely painful experience.
Some of the most common types of childhood trauma include:
- physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- not having your basic needs met
- losing a parent to death, divorce, or incarceration
- having a parent struggle with addiction or mental illness
- witnessing or surviving an act of violence, natural disaster, warfare, or terrorism
Adverse childhood experiences can affect your physical health and wellness in adulthood by increasing your risk for chronic diseases, smoking, alcoholism, suicidality, poor academic achievement or performance at work, and financial difficulties.
The following figure by childhood trauma researchers Briere and Elliot shows the long-term effects of adverse childhood experiences on your mental, emotional, and social well-being as an adult.
How does therapy help adult survivors of childhood trauma?
If you experienced childhood trauma, you likely learned various ways to cope and adapt. This often included shifting your body and mind into the self-preservation mode known as the “fight-or-flight” response.
When threatened, these survival strategies tend to take over and help you be aggressive, fight back, and attack the threat. They can also help you try to create distance by running away or doing things to avoid the threat altogether. When the threat is too powerful to do either of those options, your body may shut down and become floppy and your mind may check-out.
Although these survival tactics are good at keeping you safe in the moment, unresolved childhood trauma often creates long-term consequences and can put your entire well-being under significant strain. You may still be on a perpetual “high alert” and keeping a watchful eye for threats.
And if you’re always at-the-ready to fight or flee, it’s hard to truly engage life, embrace the here-and-now, and feel safe in a relationships.
Often, as an adult, you are no longer facing those same threats and don’t need to be in self-preservation mode. Instead, you need support and guidance in learning new ways to respond to your painful memories. You can learn those new ways because, despite your traumatic past, your brain has the same “neuroplasticity” as anyone else. That means, your brain can rewire itself and integrate more helpful ways to take care of yourself while pursuing a full and meaningful life.
Though there are many effective models for working with trauma, they often include:
- Learning skills to stay grounded in the here-and-now
- Learning new ways to work with your painful memories and thoughts
- A strong therapeutic relationship
The therapeutic relationship is often considered the most essential ingredient for effective trauma therapy. Maximizing that relationship is among my greatest priorities as a trauma therapist.
How I help adult survivors of childhood trauma
I developed my therapeutic approach to working with adult survivors of childhood trauma by drawing on my extensive training in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and my time in Clinical Residency working under the direction of Kathy Steele, MN, CS, an expert in Dissociative Identity Disorder and trauma therapy. Each year, I complete additional training in trauma therapy to ensure my skills are diverse and current. Unlike other trauma therapy you may have tried, the aim of my trauma therapy services isn’t for you to learn how to control your level of distress while we process your traumatic memories. Instead, our work will help you engage in life and act on your behalf even in the presence of distressing memories.
Our work will:
- Empower you with choices over how you respond to your traumatic past
- Help you use present moment awareness to catch when you are getting caught up in your thoughts, avoiding your feelings, or losing contact with the present moment
- Enable you to respond differently to your thoughts, allow your feelings, and stay connected to yourself in the here and now so that you control your choices rather than your painful memories
- Re-process your traumatic memories (if needed) with these mindfulness and grounding skills in-place
- Increase you awareness of what matters to you and what you want to be about, so that you can use those values as guides well after you’ve completed therapy and continue engaging with the world in new and different ways