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The Lasting Effects of Trauma & Childhood Adversity

Even though we might believe that we had a ‘normal’ childhood, most children experience some form of ‘adverse childhood experiences’ (aka ACE’s). Whether it was emotionally unavailable or controlling (e.g., everything had to be ‘fine’) parents, a chaotic household (due to addiction, mental illness, depression, anxiety, domestic violence, or divorce), neglect or abuse, children are affected.  But how?

Regardless of the adversity, the developing brain takes the hit, and the immediate and long-lasting emotional, psychological and even spiritual wounds follow us into adulthood, impacting how we make choices and behave. Many people, even those with traumatic backgrounds, do not fully see the connection between past experiences and current behaviours, body symptoms and suffering. Time does not heal the pain.

 As psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung noted, the enduring emotional impact of childhood wounding “remains hidden all along from the [person], so that not reaching consciousness, the emotion never wears itself out, it is never used up.”  Where does it go?

The intense feelings of anger, helplessness and shame along with horrific memories of adversity are overwhelming for the child. Unable to process the emotions they get stored in the body and can lead to symptoms such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, alcohol and drug dependency, relationship dysfunction, and the increased risk for serious and chronic circulatory, digestive, musculoskeletal, respiratory and infectious diseases.

On a neurological level, studies show specific changes in the brains of traumatized individuals. These changes correspond with noticeable inabilities to process feelings and to self-reflect, inhibit creative capacities and alter one’s sense of identity and worth.

Think of the negative and denigrating messages we tell ourselves throughout the day. For the most part, we were not born with these thoughts.  It is through one-time traumatic or chronic negative experiences that children integrate untrue beliefs about themselves (e.g., “I am stupid, worthless, unlovable, etc.”).  These negative and false cognitions continue to haunt us well into adulthood.

The memories, including images, sounds, tastes, touch and smells, are often stored in our implicit or unconscious memories and can surface later when triggered by similar stimuli.  Memories can also be recalled symbolically in dreams and in deeply relaxed states (e.g., EMDR psychotherapy) where unconscious material can surface.

In order to aid the healing of our wounds, we must be open to revisit the stored pain in order for our wounded inner child to share his/her full experiences and feelings.  With our older, wiser self listening, we can compassionately teach the truths about what happened, that we were not to blame, and that we are lovable, worthy, and good enough.

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.