Childhood trauma is an injury or emotional shock that substantially impairs a person’s psychological development, and often leads to neurosis. But, psychology has gone a long way in the process of revealing as well as healing childhood traumas. Before we talk about the steps towards making peace and letting go of these childhood experiences, it is essential to understand the mechanisms involved in this process.

WHO ARE THE PEOPLE THAT SUFFER FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMAS

people suffering from childhood trauma

These are people who don’t necessarily know why everything is going wrong at home and lead to romantic, professional, or friendly failures. So they think they have a problem, don’t feel acknowledged and are getting tired. They worry too much about others and their own actions.

They are the people who suffer, who believe they are the only ones in this case and do not understand the origin of their discomfort. Around them, others look serene, happy as a couple, have a successful and fulfilled life, and have a successful career. They feel guilty as soon as they do something or blame others for their emotions.

Recent research in psychology and neuroscience, as well as clinical experience, has shown that many of these self-blame behaviors are linked to trauma or negative experiences in childhood, between the ages of 0 and 10, when the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex that allows emotions to be managed, is not yet mature.

The process, therefore, consists in identifying and treating the after-effects of traumatic childhood experiences in adulthood. And it’s much more frequent than we think.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY TRAUMATIC CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES

stressful events to children

The notion of abuse is much broader than that used in everyday language; it is not just sexual abuse and physical assault. According to the World Health Organization, a quarter of the population has suffered child abuse or victimization.

These are physical and emotional abuse and ill-treatment, the presence of disturbed individuals in the family or environment, verbal or physical abuse, the permanent or regular absence of one or both parents, and physical or emotional neglect.

For example, the child was not provided with enough support, comfort, affection, or assistance when he or she was in pain, was not protected, or cared for when he or she was ill.

In fact, there is a form of active maltreatment, and a passive form (see The polyjuvenile victimization questionnaire). And the latter is much more frequent than the former, but much more difficult to detect and treat. Because identifying “lack” of affection, care, attention, etc., in your life is more complicated than remembering the abuse or hurt.

The long-lasting guilt that one then feels as an adult is often linked to this overflow of negative emotions that were miscoded as a child. Especially since we must be wary of the “labels” of childhood experiences, because it is often others who have named them and designated them as benign or harmless at the time of the events…

WHY DO THESE TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES HAVE CONSEQUENCES IN ADULTHOOD

passed stressful events impacts mental health in adulthood

Any form of abuse causes a number of so-called primary negative emotions, such as fear and stress, which, if not regulated in childhood by a caring environment, can lead to chronic guilt in adulthood.

A child who receives physical, psychological or any other form of abuse tends to think (because his brain has not matured enough, and he is not able to analyze the situation as an adult) that everything is his fault: “I didn’t do the right thing, I was hit because I was bad, I did wrong, I’m too capricious, that’s why mom and dad are angry”. And these conclusions, with negative emotions, are memorized and remain anchored in the brain, but they are poorly “encoded” until they are “revisited” with an adult vision.

HOW TRAUMATIC EVENTS ARE ENCODED IN CHILD BRAIN

We generally have a few memories of our childhood. We forget and put a lot of things aside to move forward, because “it is useless to dwell on the past”, as we often hear. We want to move forward, so we trivialize. We think it was normal to be called a fool every day, because we weren’t resourceful (“but hey, we were five years old”).

And we think that if we didn’t receive much affection and respect, it’s because we shouldn’t have deserved it. The abused child believes he or she is responsible for what happens to him or her. However, as an adult, he doesn’t think about all this.

According to the work of the Portuguese professor of neurology, neurosciences, and psychology, António Damásio, the child is experiencing emotions such as joy, fear, and anger, with their attendant sensations, but not yet “feelings” about them… In part because its development is not complete and the prefrontal cortex is not mature.

Each emotion is therefore associated with physical sensations, behaviors and possibly images, but not thoughts or reasoning; for example, stress increases heart rate and sweating, so that the child feels ill. But if he was hurt at the age of 5, he does not put it this way: “I’m being hurt, it’s unfair, what did I do to deserve this? “He is just extremely stressed and afraid; his primary emotions take over and are memorized as they are.

WHY DO WE HAVE TO “REVISIT” THESE EVENTS OF THE PAST

relieving past difficulties

It is the accumulation of traumatic childhood experience that often leads to an overflow of negative feelings later on in the adult’s life. What always surprises psychotherapists during consultations is that people come with a label of their childhood experiences that is very often positive. Three-quarters of them say they were happy. But when they dig a little deeper into their past, they almost always find events that are frankly frightening! With an adult look at it, at least, like the ones just described.

Let me tell you a little story from one of my psychotherapist friends. A seven years old boy was sick and started vomiting in the middle of the night. His father was supposed to take care of him, but he was sleeping from a long day of work and didn’t want to be disturbed; the boy tried to take care of himself. The following morning, his mother had to clean everything up and was very angry with the boy. And he was convinced that it was all his fault, that he shouldn’t have vomited, that he should have managed alone and not bothered his parents. While he had nothing to do with it, of course. But these kinds of events remain trusted in the psyche, which can create a feeling of permanent guilt.

HOW DOES CHILDHOOD TRAUMA MANIFEST IN ADULTS

It varies according to encountered events. Some people suffer from anxiety or chronic depression, others from sleep disorders with difficulty falling asleep, or from addictions of all kinds: to cannabis, to food (with eating disorders), to love stories that never go well (with emotional addictions), to gambling,etc. The common denominator is the feeling of guilt, of being at fault, of not having done the right thing.

4 STEPS TO HEAL FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

four steps to overcome childhood trauma

The process is to be conceived as a kind of ball of wool from which you have to pull the right thread so that the rest unfolds on its own… It is integrative: you have to detect the negative experiences of childhood, then you have to visualize them at the same time as you feel the corresponding physical sensations.

Step 1: Start by writing down everything that you experience as negative now as an adult

Various scientific studies, including those of American psychology professor James Pennebaker, have shown that writing contributes to well-being and makes it possible to obtain good therapeutic results. We, therefore, should take note of our difficult moments on a daily basis, specifying the context, the emotion felt and the associated thoughts. Then, we must recount our love and emotional experiences, also indicating the worst moments.

Step 2: Becoming aware of your feelings

After step 1, we can already identify if painful feelings often appear and if we regularly feel guilty or have the impression of disappointing those around us. Thus, we become more deeply aware that these sensations are frequent, both in our present existence and in our past. That they are therefore anchored in themselves.

Step 3: Revisit memories from your childhood

Then, one recounts, always in writing, one’s life as a kind of biography, insisting on the events of one’s childhood, those that come spontaneously to mind… The trivia of everyday life is generally forgotten, but the striking (and painful) memories of childhood tend to come back to life.

It is therefore a question of noting about ten stories from childhood that may have affected self-awareness.

This is the most delicate and complicated step, and we highly recommend that you see a psychotherapist to help you in this process.

Step 4: Reprocessing the memories

Then, you do an integrative work, that is, you must learn to feel your body, to accurately evaluate your physiological activity, such as your heart rate.

This is done using breathing techniques similar to those used in mindfulness meditation. Breathing without trying to modify your breathing, by closing your eyes, observing and following the flow of air in and out of your body, then identifying a painful area in your body, such as your stomach. You then bring all our attention to this area and let one of the experiences of our childhood come to mind that you have previously written down.

At this point, you try to visualize the memory for 30 to 40 minutes while remaining attentive to the pain in your stomach and others that emerge. Gradually, a form of cerebral “desensitization” takes place: the memory is reprocessed by the adult brain, i.e. it is no longer considered a fault.

Again, professional help is always necessary if you can not go through this, or if you feel no progress is achieved.

WHY DOES THIS PROCESS OF BRAIN REACTIVATION WORKS WITH PEOPLE SUFFERING FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

What exactly is happening in the brain when reprocessing childhood events

The visual, somatosensory and prefrontal cortex of the adult are activated (due to the visualization of memory and attention to the stomach), they begin to control the so-called limbal brain regions where the emotions associated with memory originate, and reprocess feelings and sensations, as if to digest them.

Do scientific studies confirm this brain reactivation process

Not in a direct way, because the guilt pathologies we are talking about here are part of the “complex traumas”; that is the diagnosis we make. However, these disorders have not yet been accepted or recognized by nosology (the branch of medical science that deals with the classification diseases), including the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). As a result, it is difficult to obtain scientific studies on applied therapies.

However, this diagnosis is very relevant from a clinical point of view. Scientific work has already established questionnaires to assess these traumas – this is the case with the juvenile polyvictimization test. They reveal all types of experiences that may have had a lasting impact on emotional brain functioning.

There are also many scientific studies on the stress axis, or hypothalamic-pituitary axis, which represents a set of neural and hormonal connections responsible for the reaction of and to stress in the body. Thus, it has been shown that emotional neglect during childhood causes imbalances in this axis that often lead to brain reshuffles and behavioral disorders, addictions, or depression in adulthood.

We also know that eating delicious food, smoking a cigarette or cannabis, drinking alcohol, soothes and balances this axis of stress, but for a short time. After that, this balance is further disrupted, and a phenomenon of tolerance occurs.

In the medium and long term, it is therefore a question of finding effective methods to regulate emotions. Writing and interaction are the main ones. Then, in general, the voice – to put words on one’s feelings – and the thoughts – to understand and analyze one’s feelings in order to modify the way one perceives them – are gradually put in place without having to take any further steps.

Is this similar to the treatment of people with post-traumatic stress disorder

Yes, after a severe trauma, adults who do not recover generally see the negative emotions and images associated with the drama looping through their heads; because the prefrontal cortex cannot process these data.

The therapy then makes it possible to reactivate it in an optimal way. This is the principle of the EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) technique, whose effectiveness is recognized in post-traumatic stress disorder. Through eye movements and focused attention, the prefrontal cortex is allowed to function better.

These methods are therefore extended to childhood memories, and rapid results are obtained. Because we must admit it: the “elementary particles” of human beings are still their emotions. This is why their regulation is essential to well-being. And to be able to manage the emotions of the present, you have to have cleared the overflow of emotions from the past.

So, basically, it is a process of letting go. Is it not?

This term is so widely used that it is no longer clear what it means. This is why it is more appropriate to “operationalize” letting go. So it’s about being interactive. The best test of this ability to be aware of your body and feelings is to be able to feel (and accurately count) the beats of your heart by closing your eyes.

Anyone who is doing well should be able to do it! Otherwise, it means that one’s brain is probably fogged with negative experiences that have not been properly digested. Based on successful therapies, psychotherapists are generally able to relieve these experiences; nevertheless, this is not the case at first consultation.

One last analogy: if you have your arm anesthetized and have just put your hand on a hot plate, with your brain, you say to yourself: “No, I must not leave my hand on the plate. “You intellectualize the situation, because you no longer have any feelings. But if you talk to someone at the same time (your attention is diverted), you forget the situation and risk burning yourself!

Whereas if you have a good perception of your sensations and your arm (after the anesthesia wears off), certainly you suffer a little and burn briefly, but you don’t need to think about the fact that you shouldn’t put your hand on the plate: you immediately remove it by reflex. That’s exactly what it means to let it go. It is this ability to feel your feelings instinctively.

It is therefore a question of rediscovering instinctive, reflex feelings, which we have often lost when trying to control everything in our environment or during difficult childhood experiences.

IN SUMMARY

The four steps described above to dealing with childhood traumas are effective, not 100% obviously, particularly because it involves a lot of work, and not everyone is ready to invest fully.

The results reported by psychotherapists already seem good, but of course, more clinical research in this area is going to clear up a lot of the details about how it works, as there is still room for improvement.

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