How Does Unresolved Childhood Trauma Manifest in Adulthood?

“The past is the past.”

“Stop living in the past.”

“Let go of the past.”

Sound familiar?

Of course, there’s some truth in these common sayings. However, what if someone has unresolved childhood trauma?

Childhood should be a time of growth, exploration, and learning – with the love, care and protection of our family and extended community. However, for many individuals, childhood can also be a time of trauma and pain.

Is the past ever really in the past if someone is suffering from unresolved childhood trauma?

The answer is no.

Unresolved childhood trauma always lingers and presents itself, sometimes subtly but often fiercely, in a person’s adult life.

Before we dive into the long-term impacts of childhood trauma, let’s understand some basic definitions, first.

Defining trauma

In simple terms, trauma is an emotional response to an intensely distressing event or series of events that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope. 

It’s important to note that traumatic events affect people differently and the impact of trauma is as varied as human individuality. 

Gabor Maté summarises trauma as “a psychic wound that hardens you psychologically… then interferes with your ability to grow and develop.” 

Unresolved trauma can often lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is classified as a mental health condition that can develop after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event.

Childhood trauma 

Childhood trauma differs from other trauma because it impacts the formative years, which can leave lasting effects on someone’s emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Unfortunately, childhood trauma is common. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that over two-thirds of children experience some type of trauma before turning 16.

The most notable research on childhood trauma is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente between 1995–1997. The research study’s goal was to understand the relationship between childhood trauma and its impact on adulthood.

The study surveyed more than 17,000 adults and asked them about their experiences of ten different types of childhood trauma, including:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Divorce
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental illness
sad depressed child sitting alone

The researchers found that ACEs were incredibly common, with two-thirds of the participants reporting at least one ACE and more than one in five reporting three or more ACEs.

The researchers also found that ACEs have a significant impact on both long-term physical and mental health. In other words, the more ACEs a person experiences, the higher their risk for a wide range of health problems, such as chronic diseases, mental health disorders, and substance abuse.

The ACE study has strongly influenced awareness about childhood trauma and its long-term effects into adulthood. 

A modern day example

To explain how unresolved childhood trauma may manifest in adulthood, we’ll use an example of an individual named Sarah.

Sarah experienced severe childhood trauma. Her father was an alcoholic who often verbally and physically abused her. Her mother struggled with depression and was unable to protect her. Despite the trauma, Sarah learned to cope by burying her emotions and focusing on school. She made straight As and graduated at the top of her class.

However, as Sarah entered adulthood, the trauma began to manifest in unexpected ways. Sarah struggled with intense anxiety and found herself constantly worried about her safety and the safety of her loved ones.

She also had difficulty forming close relationships and often felt disconnected from others. She could never keep a relationship alive because she lacked trust in others and feared abandonment.  

Ways that childhood trauma can affect adults later in life

Sarah’s symptoms are not uncommon in those with unresolved childhood trauma.

Unresolved childhood trauma can manifest in a variety of ways in adulthood. Here are some examples:

Emotional regulation difficulties

One of the most common ways that childhood trauma affects adults is through difficulties with emotional regulation. Childhood trauma can disrupt the development of the brain’s emotional regulation system, making it challenging for individuals to manage their emotions effectively.

Being unable to regulate emotions can lead to intense emotional reactions to seemingly minor triggers, difficulty expressing emotions, and a struggle to regulate one’s mood.

Relationship issues

sad depressed woman fighting with husband

Childhood trauma can also impact an individual’s ability to form healthy relationships in adulthood. For example, trauma can disrupt the development of healthy attachment patterns, leading to problems with trust, intimacy, and social connection.

Individuals who have experienced childhood trauma may struggle with forming meaningful relationships and maintaining them over time. They may also have issues with setting healthy boundaries and may find themselves in abusive relationships.

Self-esteem and self-worth

Research shows that another way that childhood trauma affects adults is through negative self-image and self-worth. Individuals who have experienced trauma during childhood may develop negative beliefs about themselves and their abilities, leading to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

Low self-esteem and low self-worth become a lens through which someone sees the world. This distorted lens can impact their ability to succeed in school or work, achieve their goals, and so much more.

Health issues

Studies also show that childhood trauma can manifest in physical health issues in adulthood. Individuals who have experienced childhood trauma are at higher risk of developing:

  • Chronic pain
  • Headaches
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Lower immune function
  • Stroke
  • Cancer

While the reasons for health issues linked to childhood trauma are complex, one reason is that trauma can activate the body’s stress response system, leading to changes in cortisol and other stress hormones that can impact the immune system.

Substance abuse

Unfortunately, many individuals who have experienced childhood trauma turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the symptoms of their trauma. Substance abuse can provide a temporary escape from the pain and anxiety associated with trauma, but it can also lead to addiction.

Anxiety and depression

depressed man thinking of memories

Research shows that an individual’s risk of developing anxiety and depression in adulthood rises with unresolved childhood trauma. Trauma can impact the brain’s stress response system, making individuals more vulnerable to developing anxiety and depression.

This is because unresolved trauma can cause changes in the brain’s structure and function, leading to alterations in the neurotransmitters that regulate mood and emotions.

Intrusive thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, distressing, or disturbing thoughts, images, or urges that come to mind involuntarily and won’t go away despite efforts to suppress or ignore them. These thoughts are often repetitive and can be distressing, causing feelings of anxiety, guilt, or shame. Intrusive thoughts are a common symptom for those with unresolved childhood trauma.

Back to Sarah’s story

In therapy, Sarah began to explore the impact of her childhood trauma on her adult life. She learned that her coping mechanisms, such as burying her emotions and working too hard, were no longer effective and were causing her more harm than good.

Through therapy, Sarah learned to identify and express her emotions appropriately, set boundaries in her relationships, and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

While the process was not easy, Sarah was able to work through her childhood trauma and make significant progress in her adult life. While she was able to form meaningful relationships, the most important part of her recovery was the ability to find peace within herself.

Sarah’s story shows that unresolved childhood trauma can manifest in unexpected ways, but with the right support and tools, it is possible to heal and move forward.

Help for those with unresolved childhood trauma

The good news is that there is both help and hope for those with unresolved childhood trauma. The impact of trauma on individuals has become more understood over the past few years, and more treatment for trauma is available than ever before.

Here are some initial suggestions for those seeking to heal from unresolved trauma:

Find professional help

Healing Shame. Adult man having a therapy session.

Individual therapy can be an effective way to address the impact of childhood trauma. A mental health professional can help you explore your experiences, develop healthy coping mechanisms, and work through unresolved emotions.

Join a support group

Connecting with others who have been through similar experiences can be helpful in feeling less alone and finding much-needed support. Support groups provide a safe space to share experiences, heal from past trauma, learn healthy coping strategies, and build community.

Practice self-care

Self-care activities such as exercise, mindfulness, or creative outlets can help reduce stress and improve mood. Taking care of yourself, both physically and mentally, is an essential part of healing from childhood trauma.

Seek medical care if needed

Individuals who have experienced childhood trauma may also experience physical health problems. Seeking medical care can help address any physical symptoms related to your trauma. 

Educate yourself

Learning more about the impact of childhood trauma can be empowering and help you better understand the impact of your experiences on your mental and physical health.

Practise trauma-informed mindfulness

Trauma-informed mindfulness is a mindfulness practice that has been adapted to meet the unique needs of trauma survivors. Working with a trauma-informed mindfulness teacher, in a safe and supportive environment, can help you become more aware of your emotions, improve self-regulation and learn to live in the present.

Develop a strong support network

Strong support system through friends

Building relationships with supportive family members, friends, or community members can help provide a sense of safety and connection.

Healing from childhood trauma is a process, and it takes time and effort. However, with the right treatment, there is hope for a fulfilling life.

Other points

Unresolved childhood trauma can have significant and long-lasting effects on someone’s mental, emotional, and physical health.

An article from Psychology Today states:

Trauma can stay in the body and affect someone’s life until they uncover it and process it out.”

It’s essential to realise that if trauma is not dealt with, it won’t go anywhere. Trauma will continue to manifest itself in the body and mind.

Seeking professional help to address childhood trauma’s impact and develop healthy coping mechanisms is a solid first step to recovery.

Individual therapy, mindfulness practices, and support groups can all be effective in addressing childhood trauma’s impact in adulthood.

How can Camino Recovery help?

At Camino Recovery, we are experts in trauma treatment. In fact, our entire mission statement revolves around this statement: 

When you resolve the trauma, you resolve the problem.”

Camino offers a wide range of treatment programs to suit each client’s individual needs, including ‘non-invasive’, evidence-based approaches like EMDR, equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), art therapy and more.

If you or a loved one is suffering from unresolved trauma, please know that you are not alone. Contact one of our trauma specialists today for a confidential conversation to see how we can help.

Ameet Braich - Camino Recovery Spain

Ameet Singh Braich, a distinguished Clinical Director at Camino Recovery, is renowned for expertise in addiction and trauma resolution. With 15+ years of experience, he transforms lives through a holistic therapeutic approach. His research focuses on childhood maltreatment's impact on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning.

A dynamic speaker and trainer, Ameet empowers clients to achieve lasting recovery, prioritizing trauma resolution and relapse prevention. His diverse training includes EAP, crisis intervention, and EMDR. Committed to positive transformation, Ameet equips individuals across fields to address challenges of addiction.

More from Ameet Braich

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