Effects Of Childhood Interpersonal Trauma And Related Topics
Childhood Trauma: Its Link to Adult Anxiety.
Anxious personality types often result from childhood trauma. Research has shown that there are 7 major factors that influence the way our personalities develop. These are:
– the way in which we are disciplined in childhood – our place within the family e.g. birth order/sex – the kinds of role model we had as children e.g. parents – the belief system of the family we grew up in – our genes/biochemical makeup – the social and cultural influences we experienced as children – the particular PERSONAL MEANING that we attach to each of the above
There are many ways that the above factors can interact to produce a personality dominated by anxiety in adulthood. Below are some experiences, directly related to the above factors, which can contribute towards us developing an anxiety disorder in adulthood:
1) AN ANXIOUS PARENT OR ROLE MODEL: one way in which children are programmed to learn by evolution and develop their personalities is by a process referred to by psychologists as MODELLING (copying the behaviour of role models, either consciously or unconsciously). It follows that a role model who frequently displays intense anxiety is likely to lead to the child adopting a similar manner of behaving and responding.
2) RIGID BELIEF/RULE SYSTEMS: if the child’s role models (especially parents) have a rigid belief system, perhaps deriving from their culture or religion, the child may develop inflexibly ‘black and white’ thinking styles which can frequently become a source of anxiety in later life.
Additionally, if a child lives in a highly chaotic environment, due, for example, to parental mental illness or substance abuse, s/he may learn to develop a rigid set of rules to give him/herself some sense of security and stability. Again, carrying such rigid rules into adult life can often lead to high levels of anxiety.
3) CHILD ABUSE: abuse, during childhood, too, frequently leads to the abused child developing problems related to anxiety in adult life. The types of abuse which may occur include physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, neglect (physical and/or emotional), and cruel and unusual punishment.
4) ANXIETY RELATED TO SEPARATION AND LOSS: a child may be separated from a parent or carer for extended periods of time, due, for example, to the following events:
– a parent/carer going into hospital for a long time – divorce – death
If the child DOES NOT UNDERSTAND WHY the parent/carer has become absent, this can be especially anxiety-inducing.
A more subtle, but, equally damaging, form of separation a child may experience is if the parent/carer is PHYSICALLY PRESENT BUT IGNORES/FAILS TO INTERACT MEANINGFULLY with the child.
5) REVERSAL OF PARENT-CHILD ROLES:for a significant part of my childhood, starting at around the age of 11 years, this was the situation that I found myself in. Essentially, I became my mother’s personal counsellor, permanently, it seemed, on-call ( I’m surprised she didn’t provide me with a pager). Indeed, at this stage in my childhood, she began to refer to me as her ‘Little Psychiatrist.’ A child may also find him/herself having to adopt a parental role for many other reasons; for example, parental substance abuse, parental absence etc. When the child, by necessity, in order to survive, takes on responsibilities with which s/he is not old enough to cope, this can lead to a number of anxiety-linked personality traits; these may include: ‘black and white’ thinking, suppression of feelings, unrealistically high levels of self-expectation, and a deep need to have control.
Reversal of parent-child roles is sometimes referred to as PARENTIFICATION.
Other childhood experiences which may lead to an anxious personality type in adulthood I list below:
– highly critical parents/carer – overprotective parents/carer – parental/carer pressures placed on the child to suppress/deny his/her own feelings.
We learn, then, certain ways of coping and behaving when faced with difficult childhood experiences; the problem is, however, that carrying these ways of coping and behaving into adulthood is often unhelpful; this is because, as adults, we are frequently presented with an environment to deal with which is very different from the environment we needed to deal with as children – we, therefore, need to adapt our behavioural responses to the new environment, in order to function in it effectively.
THE POSITIVE NEWS is that, as adults, it is possible to MODIFY OUR PERSONALITY CHARACTERISTICS (which previously led to anxiety) and to learn new, more appropriate, ways of thinking and behaving, adaptive to the new, adult environment into which we are inevitably plunged. One therapy that research has shown can be particularly effective in treating anxiety which has its roots in childhood is called COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL THERAPY (CBT).
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF ANXIETY DISORDER:
What are the main different types of anxiety disorder that exist? Before looking at this, it is first worth pointing out that some anxiety is healthy. For example, many of us would be anxious before an important job interview, and, in such a case, a moderate amount of anxiety can improve our performance (e.g. it might compel us to prepare thoroughly). Such ‘healthy’ anxiety is appropriate and transient (i.e. it disperses soon after the stressful event is over and does not impair our functioning).
However, if a person is constantly, unremittingly, extremely anxious, on a day-to-day basis, and this anxiety has an adverse effect upon his/her thinking and behaviour, it is quite possible s/he is suffering from a diagnosable anxiety disorder.
Let’s take a look at the various types of anxiety disorder that exist :
1) SEPARATION ANXIETY: this involves the individual becoming excessively anxious about being separated from those with whom s/he has formed a significant attachment. It is more common in children and can often derive from a disrupted bonding process that took place between the baby and mother (or another primary caregiver). The symptoms the child is likely to display if suffering from separation anxiety include excessive crying and tantrums.
Adults and adolescents suffering from the condition are more likely to express it by displaying signs of acute panic as well as developing physical symptoms such as headaches and nausea.
2) SPECIFIC PHOBIA: this involves the individual experiencing irrational fear in response to encountering SPECIFIC OBJECTS OR SITUATIONS.
If exposed to the dreaded object or situation, the individual will respond with extreme fear and anxiety.
Another hallmark of the condition is that the affected person will go to extreme lengths to avoid the feared object or situation in a manner that can be highly disruptive to his/her life.
3) SELECTIVE MUTISM:the individual affected by this disorder ceases to speak in certain social situations (though NOT in all social situations). The very thought of having to speak in these particular situations leads to the experiencing of great distress and panic. It is most common in children and it is far more extreme than ordinary shyness.
4) PANIC DISORDER: an individual who suffers from this will experience an intense, sudden onset of fear and anxiety which causes significant distress and symptoms such as chest pain, rapidly beating heart, shaking, dizziness, nausea and even a feeling of very imminent death.
Sometimes, there are triggers that give rise to such reactions, whereas, at other times, the distressing feelings may materialize ‘out of the blue’.
In either case, the person will feel a desperate need to escape the current situation in which s/he finds him/herself.
However, this reaction alone (which psychologists refer to as a ‘panic attack‘) is insufficient to warrant a diagnosis of panic DISORDER – for this condition to be diagnosed, the person must not only suffer from panic attacks but, ALSO, must be so PREOCCUPIED with concern about their possible occurrence that his/her life is significantly disrupted.
One of the most common fears that people with panic disorder have is of entering larger department stores, supermarkets etc.
Not infrequently, those who suffer from panic disorder feel safer if, in the feared situation, they have someone with them to provide them with reassurance.
5) AGORAPHOBIA: this condition involves an irrational and disproportionate fear of PARTICULAR situations. In such feared situations, they will experience intense concern that something terrible will happen which they will be unable to escape.
Therefore, the individual will desperately avoid exposing themselves to the feared situation in a way that significantly impairs their daily functioning. (e.g. being unable to travel to a place of work due to an irrational fear of public transport).
6) SOCIAL ANXIETY DISORDER: this condition involves a deep fear of being judged and negatively evaluated in certain social situations. Such situations cause the person to experience an extremely uncomfortable level of anxiety and distress which tenaciously persists.
In this way, the condition significantly impairs day-to-day functioning.
Often, it is NOT ALL social situations that give rise to such anxiety in the sufferer, but, rather, specific ones such as meeting new people or interacting in large groups.
7) GENERALIZED ANXIETY DISORDER (GAD): this condition manifests itself by causing the sufferer to worry obsessively about a WIDE VARIETY of concerns (both important and trivial) in a way that is very hard to control, and, therefore, often overwhelming.
The level of anxiety is so high that it significantly disrupts the individual’s life.
The condition can impair, for example :
– the ability to concentrate
– the ability to hold down a job
– the ability to sleep
The individual may be so consumed by worry that s/he feels trapped in an internal world of pain and detached from the outside world.
For the disorder to be formally diagnosed, the condition must be experienced more days than not and the level of worry must be significantly disproportionate to its source in reasonable and objective terms.
Other symptoms may include :
– stomach complaints.
As I stated at the start of this article, because many anxiety conditions may have their root in our experience of childhood trauma that has caused the resultant anxiety to be shifted onto our ‘thinking style’, leading to us perceiving the world as dangerous, and ourselves to as powerless, helpless and highly vulnerable, therapies which address this ‘faulty thinking style’, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can be highly effective at correcting and, consequently, at reducing, our anxiety levels (click here to read my article on how CBT can help us to recover from childhood trauma).