Growing up with trauma can be emotionally wounding and have long-lasting physical consequences, too – the impact of traumatic experiences can last long after the danger is gone. Dr. Dana Ross, psychiatrist, Trauma Therapy Program, Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, explains.
Childhood trauma, including physical, psychological, sexual and verbal abuse, as well as neglect and abandonment can influence all aspects of a person, including psychological and physical health, as well as relationships with oneself and others and the world.
Trauma that occurs in childhood is particularly likely to affect your adult life because it occurs at a time when your brain and your sense of self are in development. As a result, some people may struggle with one or more mental health diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, eating disorders or substance use.
Research shows that as the number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) increases, so does the likelihood of having more physical health issues. In addition, children exposed to traumatic environments learn to negotiate relationships with the aim of increasing safety, however, these relational strategies may have consequences or be less helpful in adulthood. For example, learning as a child that it was not always safe to voice one’s needs or thoughts may result in feeling like you don’t deserve to have a voice in adulthood in your life, school or workplace.
So how can people who have experienced childhood trauma learn to effectively manage symptoms to ensure healthy, emotionally fulfilling futures?
Though past experiences of trauma will always be a part of a person’s life story, people have the potential to heal and lessen the impact of trauma on their life, here and now. Some areas of focus for treatment include being able to better manage emotions, thoughts and behaviours, and building more fulfilling relationships with themselves and others. Strategies for doing so can include:
- Skills for managing and coping with emotions that can be feel overwhelming or numbing such as grounding approaches, mindfulness, meditation and acts of self-care.
- Body focused therapies or interventions that work with bodily responses and sensations that can be difficult to manage.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to challenge thoughts about oneself or one’s worth, as well as to challenge unhelpful thought patterns.
- Strategies focused on trying out new or different behaviours, such as goal setting, self-care and setting boundaries within relationships.
- Being curious about patterns of interactions in relationships in a person’s life that may not be contributing positively anymore.
It can be challenging to find treatment for childhood trauma. We know that those from underprivileged groups or from groups underrepresented in healthcare settings can often have additional difficulty finding and accessing appropriate care. If you think that addressing the impact of childhood trauma is important for your healing, please consider reaching out to your family doctor to ask about local and online resources, coping strategies and additional guidance on treatment options.
Dr. Dana Ross is a psychiatrist in the Trauma Therapy Program (TTP) at Women's College Hospital in Toronto. The TTP specializes in treating those who have experienced childhood interpersonal trauma. She practices trauma-focused individual and group therapy, and has a strong interest in teaching and education.