The dynamics in our family of origin leave an imprint on us--for better or for worse. If there is perpetual toxicity in your family of origin, the imprint left can feel devastating. It is also common for family members to sometimes not recognize the toxicity and its impact. Knowing the signs and impact can help you understand why you might feel the way you feel and why you have some of the struggles you have. Thankfully, you do not have to stay tethered to, or wounded by, these toxic patterns. Healing, freedom, and positive growth can be yours.
Below is a brief synopsis of some common signs of toxicity in families, the impact that toxicity has, and what to do about it.
Part 3: Be Aware of the Effects and Symptoms of Unresolved Trauma
How do I know if my loved one is living with the effects of untreated, unresolved childhood trauma? This is a question I’ve heard more than once. Below are two lists. One list details some of the main effects of childhood trauma and the other outlines many of the symptoms.
Please keep in mind that not every survivor of childhood trauma will experience each of the effects or symptoms outlined below. Survivors experience various effects and symptoms, and to various degrees. The combination of effects and symptoms are as varied as each survivor’s particular history, trauma experience, and current reality.
I. The Effects of Complex Childhood Trauma
Trauma survivors can find it difficult to bond with others, even close family members. It is not uncommon for them to feel little or no connection with people, and to feel tremendous aloneness even when in the company of others. This inability to connect is sometimes further intensified by feeling “different” from everyone else.
2. Attachment Issues
The individual has attachment patterns that are not healthy or fulfilling. Those patterns may include anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, or disorganized attachment. These are marked by dysfunctional relationships, love/hate relationships, relationships that lack deep connections, and/or limerence relationships (being obsessively in love with a person based on fantasy rather than reality.) They may even have relationships marked by a seemingly profound loyalty to their childhood abusers.
3. Crisis of Faith
As coping mechanisms work less and/or in the face of repeated triggers that are intensifying beyond tolerability, complex trauma survivors can reach a crisis of faith. Their faith in people, in causes, in the future, in God, and in self erode more and more. Sadly, even the safe and reliable people and aspects of their lives are viewed more and more as abusive, dangerous, and untrustworthy. This internal, unbearable crisis can be manifest in their sabotaging their worlds or suddenly walking away from the lives they have built.
4. Deep Routed Fear of Trust
It is understandable that many people who have endured abuse and other forms of trauma question the safety of people and situations. The severely traumatized brain of a complex trauma survivor is easily overwhelmed and often finds it very difficult to trust others, and therefore shields itself. What little trust might exist is very easily eroded.
The survivor’s brain is constantly scanning for threats. As a result, defensiveness is frequently employed through avoidance and circular discussions, especially in their intimate relationships. It is important to remember that this is not a character issue, but a response to traumatic injury. It is part and parcel of the tremendous childhood threats that have caused the individual to experience hypervigilance and flashbacks, and to have a very low threshold for conflict and for others being displeased with him or her. This is also why many trauma survivors are people pleasers, as people pleasing is a form of defensiveness, helping to guard the individual from the displeasure of others. It is important to note a seeming contradiction, which is that many trauma survivors will not actively defend themselves from lies and accusations, and will not adequately explain themselves. Again, conflict is excruciating for many survivors, causing them to experience emotional paralysis, which in the moment serves as a defense mechanism. These types of complexities are the constant reality for many trauma survivors.
Dissociation is a coping mechanism the brain uses during repeated or perpetual abuse. It involves a detachment from reality that can be as mild as day dreaming or as severe as dissociative identity disorder. This mental process produces a lack of connectivity between a person’s thoughts, feelings, actions, memories, and sense of self, and it interferes with how a person experiences events.
7. Emotional Dysregulation
While many adults can regulate how they experience and respond to external events and interactions, survivors of trauma find this difficult to do, especially as it relates to loved ones and authority figures. For one thing, survivors of childhood trauma typically lacked caregivers that modeled healthy emotional regulation. For another, because of the abuse and neglect, they were robbed of the opportunity to develop the psychological and emotional health necessary to regulate. The consequence is that as adults they tend to over analyze and easily misread facial expressions, body language, tones, words, and actions. Internally, they can also experience exaggerated emotional responses to everyday dynamics, even if they are not showing it on the outside.
This includes distressing visual images, intrusive thoughts, body memories, nightmares, and emotional flashbacks. With emotional flashbacks, the survivor responds to a current situation based on a past traumatic experience. This can cause his response to seem irrational to others in the moment. However, his response is based on very real and intense negative feelings he is experiencing, and he is often not aware that the intense emotions are flashbacks.
9. Hypervigilance About People
Hypervigilance is the scanning of one’s environment for danger. It is a normal response when danger is present or perceived. For many complex trauma survivors, danger is perceived in all human dynamics, and survivors therefore tend to remain on hyper alert. Because they can be particularly sensitive to body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions, their fight, flight, or freeze response is regularly engaged. This is a profoundly taxing state for the nervous system. The nervous system is meant to be able to rest from hypervigilance, but cannot in the case of many complex trauma survivors.
10. Profoundly Wounded Inner Child
If there were ever a person whose inner child needs to be understood, it is the survivor of complex childhood trauma. He or she has a deep reservoir of neglect and unmet needs from childhood. He has been left believing that he is bad, unimportant, and insignificant. That wounded and damaged child remains a driving force within him, searching for safety, protection, and love.
II. The Symptoms of Complex Childhood Trauma
Trauma survivors, even many of the ones in therapy, deny, dissociate, and refuse to look at their trauma. This is because facing trauma is painful, tremendously taxing, and potentially very scary. It is also the only way of living, thinking, and navigating that they know. Facing the trauma means moving into a completely new way of being. And that can be terrifying. The price of not resolving that trauma is far worse than the pain of facing it and healing, but facing it is a terrifying prospect nonetheless for many survivors.
If your loved one is experiencing a number of the effects or symptoms listed above, you may want to consider reaching out for help. The road to recovery can be very long. It can take years and years to process through the profoundly deep and destructive implications of childhood trauma. Yet, it is a worthwhile journey that can offer tremendous healing and liberation, step by step.
Copyright © 2018 Dr. Dawn-Marie Pearson
Part 1: Be Aware of Adverse Childhood Experiences
One of the questions I have been receiving since my article on marriage and childhood trauma is: “How do I know if my spouse or fiancé has experienced childhood trauma?” As we consider whether a loved one is experiencing traumatic stress, it is key to establish what trauma is. With that in place, we are then better able to explore whether a loved one may be experiencing traumatic stress.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is not determined simply by an event or an environment. What makes the event traumatic is the impact it has had on the individual. Certainly, some types of events and dynamics are more typical of being experienced as traumatic, as you will see below. But not everyone who experiences the same event suffers traumatic stress. For example, two people may witness a violent crime. One may experience traumatic stress and the other may not.
So what exactly makes the event a traumatic experience? A traumatic event, in very simple terms, involves an isolated experience or an ongoing dynamic or ongoing dynamics that completely overwhelm the individual's ability to cope or to integrate the ideas and emotions involved with that experience. Here, it is crucial to understand that a person who has experienced childhood trauma does not always register it as trauma, even as an adult. So while the event may be causing tremendous traumatic stress, the adult survivor may be unaware that some of what they are experiencing is traumatic stress.
How Can I Tell If My Spouse Is Experiencing the Effects of Trauma?
One of the ways to help determine if a spouse has unresolved traumatic stress is to know the adverse childhood experiences that can cause traumatic stress. From there, you can explore if your spouse has endured any of those adverse childhood experiences.
As we delve into a list of adverse childhood experiences, it is important to note that even if someone has had any of the following experiences, it does not automatically mean they have unresolved issues from trauma. There are several factors that play a part in whether or not the event caused lasting traumatic stress, or even any traumatic stress at all. One such factor to be taken into account is the presence of a nurturing adult in the child’s life. A loving and supportive grandparent, a tuned in teacher, or a safe and positive neighbor can help to build resilience and to foster healing in a child. Another factor is the frequency of the event, not just the intensity of the event. A seemingly “mild” difficult event that happens repeatedly can cause as much traumatic stress as a one-time horrific event. Whether or not the child had access to help and to appropriate intervention is also a key factor in whether the event causes longterm traumatic stress. This means that the below list is a helpful guide, not a diagnostic chart.
Adverse Childhood Experiences that Lend Themselves to Traumatic Stress
If your loved one has suffered any of the below adverse childhood experiences, and certainly if he suffered them with any amount of repetition and frequency, it is very possible that he has experienced childhood trauma.
One of the things I have discovered over the years is that trauma is filled with nuances. Every trauma experience is unique because it has its own variables. One of the best ways to begin to understand the impact of your spouse’s life experiences is to know his story. Listen to him share. Be curious, be caring, and be kind as he shares.
This list might not reflect only your spouse’s experiences. Perhaps you found some of your life experiences chronicled there. If that’s the case, be patient, caring, and kind with yourself. Seeking help in order to process the trauma that might be there is one of the best gifts you can give yourself and your family.
In the next post I’ll explore, among other things, the behaviors that point to unresolved trauma.
For help resolving traumatic stress, you are welcome to contact us here.
Copyright © 2018 Dr. Dawn-Marie Pearson
Healing Steps for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse is a form of trauma and needs deliberate effort in order to heal. It is a profoundly damaging experience that erodes a child’s sense of value and distorts his or her sense of self and ability to trust. The damage is inflicted by the perpetrator of the abuse, as well as by caregivers who do not believe the child or who knowingly allow the abuse to continue.
Being victimized as a child at the hands of a sexual predator is injurious beyond what words can fully capture. Not being rescued is a devastatingly awful experience that compounds the injury and further complicates the trauma of sexual abuse. If you have been victimized by any form of sexual abuse, which can include rape, incest, inappropriate physical touch, fondling, inappropriate conversations, non-verbal communication of a sexual nature, voyeurism, manipulation and threats, healing is possible and available. It will be a journey, but a very worthwhile one that can dramatically change your emotional health and your life.
Following is a series of steps that can help create a powerful pathway to healing and recovery.
1 Tell Your Story. I know this can be so hard to do. Though sexual abuse is in no way the fault of the child, the shame that a survivor feels makes secrecy seem like the only safe option. It is understandable if you have no desire to ever talk about what happened to you. However, finding your voice and being your own advocate by giving voice to how you were violated and dishonored is a tremendously powerful way to begin the healing. Find a safe person who you can tell. This might be a mature friend who is trustworthy, or a mentor, or a counselor.
2 Write Your Story. Journaling regularly about the impact of the abuse is a truly therapeutic process. Write about what happened to you and how you were betrayed by the perpetrator and by others who were supposed to protect you. List what the abuse has cost you emotionally, physically, relationally, mentally and in other ways. What did you lose because of the abuse? Acknowledge those losses by writing about them. Also, if you were rescued and protected by someone, write about that. Journaling helps with the very important step of accessing and facing the damage caused by abuse, which is a necessary part of healing.
3 Acknowledge the Shame Imposed on You. Perpetrators of sexual abuse unleash terrible shame on their victims. That shame keeps many survivors shackled to the abuse. Talk about your feelings of shame, humiliation, and guilt. This helps to unhitch the shame from your shoulders and to remove from you a burden that does not belong to you. It belongs to the perpetrator. Facing the shame by acknowledging its presence and by owning the truth of why it is not yours to carry requires a vulnerability that will help you being to see yourself with fresh eyes.
4 Grieve your Losses. Recovering from abuse means doing the very important work of grieving. Knowing that you are in pain is not enough. You need to own and acknowledge the pain by exploring the losses and wounds that are causing the pain. Some of the losses may include the loss of childhood innocence, the loss of a carefree childhood, the loss of safety and trust, the loss of being valued, the loss of the ability to trust now that you are an adult, the loss of peace and instead the carrying of a great deal of anger. Some of the wounds you live with might include living with a sense of fear, finding difficulty in having truly vulnerable adult friendships, experiencing the inability to enjoy sex and intimacy with your spouse, feeling dirty or guilty, feeling a profound sense of worthlessness, and the pain of strained family relationships. Give deliberate thought to your losses and wounds, acknowledge them, write about them, talk to someone safe about them, cry through them, and say goodbye to the losses. An important part of grieving is considering how you can begin to meet, in a healthy way, the needs that have gone unmet in your life. How can you connect more, trust more, love yourself more? This takes time and is difficult to do without some help. A trusted and mature friend or a counselor can be of great value.
5 Be Patient with and Kind to Yourself. You need to treat yourself with compassion. Your needs are valid and your struggles are real. Learn to honor those needs in healthy ways and to work through the struggles in a way that is healing and helpful. Pay attention to your self talk, exchanging self criticism with understanding and kindness. Recovery is a journey and self condemnation will not help the process. Pray and spend time in God’s Word learning of His deep love for you and who He says you are. Live into that truth. Also connect with a community of Christ-filled believers where you can find encouragement, kindness, and truth.
Because sexual abuse is a form of trauma, survivors may experience post-traumatic stress. The good news is that post traumatic stress is treatable and healing is very possible. While as a child you needed a protector and advocate, now you are an adult and can become your own advocate by taking the steps to begin your healing journey. Understanding that it is a difficult journey to make alone can help you reach out for help. You are valuable and worthy of living a healed and restored life.
Read Part 1 here.
Healing Words for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse
(For adult readers only.)
If you have experienced sexual abuse as a child, even the words awful and horrendous do not fully capture the insidious nature of what was done to you. Childhood sexual abuse is vicious and vile. It defies your vocabulary. It has tentacles that continue to invade and violate your being and your psyche long after the physical abuse ends.
If you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, then sadly, what you needed to hear over the years is likely not what has been said to you. If you are like the vast majority of sexual abuse survivors, your abuser or abusers have never acknowledged their wrong. You never heard from them the acknowledgment of the trauma they inflicted on you. If you confided in someone, you may have been met with help and support, but maybe not. You may have, instead, been met with reprisal, or shaming, or blame. Or maybe you have never found the voice to cry out to another for help.
Today I want to say some of what should have been said to you. These are words you should have heard a long time ago but may not have. These are words I am able to speak to my clients face to face as we talk and as they share their painful stories. Though you and I are not sitting face to face, I pray these words will bring comfort and a measure of healing to you as well.
Thank God that your story need not end in the horrible shadows of childhood sexual abuse. Healing and freedom are possible. I’ll talk about that healing and freedom in the next blog post. But today I just wanted to say, what happened to you was not your fault. You should never have been abused. You should have been protected. You should have been kept safe. There is absolutley no less worth or value in you than in those who you deem as worthy or valuable. Your worth is intrinsic and unchangeable. Your pain, your wounds and the abuse you suffered do not lessen your preciousness. You have been wounded and you need care.
The abuser holds the blame for every single iota of the abuse and for the psychological and emotional turmoil and chaos he unleashed in your life. If those who were meant to keep you safe placed you intentionally in harms way or refused to listen to your appeals for help, they are responsible, too! You were not responsible for your safety and security as a child. You were not responsible to make adults believe you. You were not responsible for creating a safe world for yourself.
Thankfully, you no longer need to be the victim of childhood sexual abuse. There is hope. You are an adult now. You can take hold of the healing journey in ways you could not have taken hold as a child. Childhood sexual abuse if very, very difficult to recover from on your own. But now you are able to reach out for help and to allow a truly joy-filled life to be yours. I'll talk more about that in the next post. I hope you'll join me.
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3 NIV)
Dr. Dawn-Marie shares a refreshing blend of professional insights and personal stories in this encouraging blog.