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
Dr. Dawn-Marie shares a refreshing blend of professional insights and personal stories in this encouraging blog.