Childhood trauma, like any psychological trauma, leaves deep mental scars that affect your mind, often in the way of PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can keep you from healing from your trauma for a long time — years or even decades, in some cases.
There are many symptoms of PTSD you may not even realize you’re living with because you’re going through childhood trauma in your own way.
The nature of your trauma — along with your childhood history and relationships — contributes to your PTSD symptoms, which means they can be complex and vary from the typical ones.
Your symptoms and your life can change. You don’t have to live this way. All of this can be sorted out.
If you’re asking yourself, “Do I have PTSD?” then you’ve probably noticed some worrying behaviors or symptoms. So what is PTSD?
It might help to know the trauma definition and if the symptoms you have are “typical” to this disorder.
Remember, though, you are you. The way you experience the after-effects of your trauma won’t have the same meaning or symptom as anyone else’s.
Here are some “universal” signs or symptoms of PTSD:
- Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
- Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
- Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
- Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you
- Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the trauma
- Avoiding places, activities, or people that remind you
- Negative thoughts about yourself, other people, or the world
- Hopelessness about the future
- Memory problems
- Difficulty maintaining close relationships
- Feeling detached from family and friends
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Being easily startled or frightened
- Always being on guard for danger
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
Most of these are trauma reactions, and there are a lot of causes of PTSD. What’s underlying your dreams, nightmares, negative thoughts about yourself, the guilt, and your shame all have complex meaning.
To work out the effects of childhood trauma, these need to be understood. You’ve lived through terror. This terror has stirred feelings distinct to you.
PTSD is about terror. When you’ve experienced childhood trauma, you were in a situation of overwhelming helplessness. Now, the trauma lives in your symptoms and your constant fears.
How does this happen?
When afraid, people react with a “fight” or “flight” response. But what happens when you can’t either fight — or escape —because there’s nowhere to go?
That’s trauma. You feel helplessly trapped in an unmanageable situation.
In trauma, you “get away” in your mind through what psychologists call dissociation. Dissociation means that during the trauma, you detach yourself from your emotional reactions and don’t feel anything.
In fact, you may feel like you’re floating when it happens; as if the one experiencing the trauma isn’t really you. This is a form of “flight.”
Many times, that trauma comes back in nightmares, vivid flashbacks, or various ways you relive over and over. Even if you don’t have the flashbacks or nightmares, there are other ways you’re reliving traumatic fears.
The terror lives deep in your bones and you can’t get rid of it, even if you thought you did.
Here are 8 ways you might be reacting if you’re suffering from PTSD due to trauma:
1. You’re hypervigilant and watchful
Your mind is on high alert. It isn’t something you do intentionally; it’s the effect of trauma.
You scan the world constantly for evidence of danger; don’t feel safe anywhere; can’t sleep. You double check the locks. You’re afraid to go anywhere alone, especially at night.
Yet it’s also hard to trust that anyone will keep you safe. The world seems out of control. Anything could happen and you’re helpless to stop it.
Your only option, your unconscious mind says, is to keep a close eye on everything and everyone around you. That way, maybe, you can protect yourself this time.
2. You sense danger around every corner
Childhood trauma means that you were in danger. This triggered your brain (more deeply your unconscious mind) to believe danger can happen at any moment.
You were helpless, and there was no one safe to turn to. Maybe your trauma was inflicted by someone who was supposed to be taking care of you.
You’ve been on high alert, having to take care of yourself, by being extremely careful.
You need to feel in control, and know what it’s like not to be. Your child mind remembers the trauma of powerlessness. Hypervigilance and worry about danger are designed to protect you.
You’ll watch out for yourself because no one else can be trusted to keep you safe — especially from the catastrophe you’re sure is about to happen.
3. You have a feeling of impending doom
Yes, you feel danger is around every corner. But even worse is the terror that an earth-shattering catastrophe is about to happen.
Believe it or not, very often this terror is stirred up if you have anything good. The catastrophe you expect is certain to take what’s good away.
Someone could die. You could be killed. Everything will fall apart. You’re afraid to make a wrong move.
That terror sometimes makes you afraid to go out. Afraid to drive. Worried about going to sleep. Even at times panicked about what you eat. You’re terrified of separation from loved ones.
4. You’re afraid of anger, fighting back, or speaking out
Anger is one scary feeling. You’re afraid you’ll hurt someone, make them go away, or that they’ll retaliate. So your anger might be well-hidden, even from yourself.
Or, when you get angry it might come out in big, frustrated explosions that make you scared or guilty. You try very hard to control it like you try to control everything else.
Maybe someone’s anger hurt or terrified you as a child. You couldn’t fight back when you were little, and may have been threatened or punished if you tried to speak out.
So, now you hold things back or assume no one will listen. Likely, somewhere inside you, resent having to comply.
It’s very hard not being able to stand up for yourself, but you can’t. You swallow how you feel. You don’t trust people, relationships, or anyone to be there for you, or to listen.
5. You panic about being trapped or become claustrophobic
You feel trapped in many different situations. Can’t say “no,” or leave when you want to. Maybe, you’re even claustrophobic.
You can’t go in elevators or be in small spaces. Not into an MRI, a small room, or a crowded area. If you feel you can’t get out, it panics you. You avoid these situations at all costs.
If you feel you have to give other people what they want and can’t express your feelings or needs openly, this is a different kind of trapped. It’s more to the point of what trauma does to your mind.
Your feelings are trapped inside you. You can’t openly be yourself. Both you and your feelings are shut away in a tight box inside.
6. You are distrustful of relationships
Part of the reason you can’t openly be yourself is you’re anxious around most people. You’re on the alert for anything that makes you think you aren’t liked, or good enough, or as good as they are.
You compare yourself constantly. Things often seem like put-downs. You aren’t sure; being anxious makes it hard to relax.
Basically, it’s not easy to trust anyone. Sometimes you don’t think it’s worth trying to be close, but you’re lonely, so you do.
Yet since you’re always worried about being judged, rejected or used, you never feel really close. It’s a vicious cycle you’d like to get out of, but can’t.
You’re almost always in a state of either high or low-level anxiety.
7. You suffer from depression, anxiety, OCD, or drug/alcohol use
What childhood trauma does to your mind can create deep and persistent depression, anxiety, OCD, and substance abuse.
Constant worry, the terror of catastrophe, feelings of imminent danger, panic, fears of expressing your feelings are anxiety driven. You need to feel control, and OCD is a way of trying to have it.
OCD is emotionally meant to be a technique to override anxiety. You might be ritualistic about the things you do. Clean constantly. Or keep things in tidy order. Even try to carefully plan things out so that you don’t make any mistake. A mistake means losing control. But, inevitably, terrible doubt takes over. What if you are wrong?
It’s very difficult to live this way. Especially if you feel there is no relief and no escape. And, this leads to depression. You feel hopeless. Can’t sleep. Dreams and nightmares haunt you. You’re afraid to try therapy —r maybe that failed you, too.
Turning to alcohol or drugs might seem the only way out of constant torment. Your self-esteem is very low and you don’t have much hope. But it’s important to know that none of this is your fault.
You don’t have to live this way.
8. You dream repeatedly about your traumatic events
Your nightmares might seem to only repeat your trauma, similar to flashbacks. But if you look closely, there are other added details. Your dreams might be so awful, disgusting, or frightening that you don’t want to sleep for fear of having another one.
How could they possibly have something to say? You just want to get rid of them.
Dreams are messages from your unconscious mind. As much as this is hard to believe, they are trying to help you work out the scars left by your trauma. But dreams and nightmares can be very scary.
That’s why it’s important to get help from someone who knows how to tell you what they mean.
Most particularly, you need help from someone who specializes in childhood trauma. You’re very likely scared to trust anyone. Especially if you’ve had failed therapy (or therapies before).
When you’ve had a trauma as a child, trust isn’t easy to come by.
So what can I do now?
There are some wonderful treatments for PTSD. Psychotherapy with someone who specializes in childhood trauma is the best option.
A therapist trained in psychoanalysis or psychoanalytic psychotherapy is most equipped to understand the unconscious meaning of your symptoms. When you get to the root of them, you won’t continue suffering.
It’s important to remember what childhood trauma did to your mind doesn’t define you. It isn’t you, and it isn’t permanent. All of these effects can change.
You’ve tried control. Escape. Avoidance. These are the methods you’ve used on your own.
If one of the results of your trauma is distrust of people or relationships, then relying on yourself has been your go-to option.
If so, you’ve been alone with your terror, fears, and panic. You’ve had no choice but to try to box up your feelings. But this only ends up another form of flight and leaves you with your symptoms.
If you can take the risk of therapy, your therapist needs to understand and take seriously how difficult it is for you to trust.
Then, psychotherapy can be a place not to be alone with your terrors, fears, and worries anymore. And since these symptoms are largely psychological, they can definitely change with help.
You’ll learn to trust again, get to the root of your fears, and grieve the hurt and trauma you experienced. You’ll learn to be safe again, which is the most important thing you can do for yourself.
Life can get better. The effects of childhood trauma don’t have to live on.