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Patterns of Behaviour Stemming from Childhood Trauma

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Childhood trauma may affect all aspects of an individuals life – mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. It may result in dissociation (cutting off from reality, either intentionally or unintentionally), constant hypervigilance (ie being perpetually on ‘red alert’ and expecting danger or calamity to strike at any moment), impaired cognitive (ie thinking) abilities (for example, decision-making skills may adversely be affected), a total inability to experience joy or pleasure of any kind (a symptom I myself had for many years and has not yet been fully remedied – the phenomenon is also termed ANHEDONIA), constant suspicion of others, an inability to trust (which can spill over into paranoia), and a chronic, unremitting feeling of profound emptiness.

Many problem behaviours can also develop in later life as a result of childhood trauma. These include:

– excessive need for control

– neediness

– insomnia

– having weak boundaries

– making unhealthy partner choices

– neurosis

– eating disorders

– addictions to sex/relationships

– bipolar depression

– people-pleasing

– obsessions/compulsions

– low self-esteem

– suicidal behaviours

– addictions to drugs/alcohol

– chronic physical illness

– severe depression

Let’s look at each of these:

1) EXCESSIVE NEED FOR CONTROL: this is a constant feeling that we need to dominate and control those we come into contact with and tell them how to live their lives. This might include frequently criticizing other people’s behaviour and lifestyles, often imposing our own views on others and getting angry when other people’s behaviour does not conform to our wishes.

Sometimes, constantly highlighting the faults of others can be a defence mechanism that we unconsciously employ to protect us from having to focus too intently upon our own particular shortcomings.

2) NEEDINESS: needy people tend to find it difficult to be alone with their own company. It may involve a constant need to phone friends to talk to and/or have people around in order to distract ourselves from our own unhappiness and lack of personal fulfilment. Under stress, we may frequently feel we cannot cope with our particular difficulties by ourselves, but need to rely and depend upon others to give us advice and support.

3) INSOMNIA: insomnia, related closely to stress, anxiety and depression, can manifest itself in various forms which include frequent waking throughout the night (something I still suffer badly from), difficulty in getting to sleep initially, early morning waking (eg at 4 am) and not being able to get back to sleep again, not feeling refreshed by the sleep we do get, and having nightmares (which may wake us up – I still get that, too).

4) HAVING WEAK BOUNDARIES: this might involve always feeling compelled to say ‘yes’ to people when we really want to say ‘no’, or spending a lot of time with people we do not really want to be with or in situations we don’t really want to be in. We may also find that we often lack the courage of our convictions. We find it very hard to set boundaries and limits, or to see the choice to do this as our right; at the root of the problem, it is frequently the case that we lack the necessary confidence, self-esteem and assertiveness to do these things. This can sometimes stem from having had our own boundaries ignored when we were children.

5) MAKING UNHEALTHY PARTNER CHOICES: we may find we choose partners with myriad problems of their own such as alcoholism, drug addiction, violent tendencies, general instability, low integrity etc. This can mean often finding ourselves feeling trapped in relationships that are neither fair nor equal and in which we are not treated with respect, consideration or understanding.

Indeed, it is a sad fact that people with low self-esteem (which itself frequently results from having had a traumatic childhood) often unconsciously select partners who will not treat them well. This can be due to the unconscious belief that we do not deserve any better.

6) NEUROSIS: this can manifest itself in a number of ways, such as:

a) constantly being anxious that others dislike us or are trying to avoid us

b) sometimes having a distorted perception of reality (although not bad enough to be labelled as psychotic ).

c) being excessively anxiety-prone in general

d) having phobias

e) having a nervous tremor and/or tics

f) often feeling fearful in situations most people would find relatively easy to deal with

g) a tendency to be excessively sensitive and to over-react

h) excessive smoking

7) EATING DISORDERS: two well-known eating disorders which may emerge (more commonly in females) are anorexia and bulimia.  Also, many people in psychological pain overeat, or eat compulsively, for its calming and comforting effects which, in turn, can lead to obesity or even morbid obesity.

8) ADDICTIONS TO SEX/RELATIONSHIPS: for many people, addictions are a temporary escape from acute psychological pain but leave us feeling even worse in the long run, these can include feeling constantly compelled to have promiscuous, but essentially empty, sex or to obsessively pursue relationships which do us no good. By masking the pain caused by psychological symptoms, they can also prevent us from taking action to address the root cause of them. But addictions can only mask our pain for so long – reality needs to be dealt with sooner or later (and, of course, the later we leave it, the more difficult it generally becomes).

Many have not one, but multiple, addictions (eg nicotine, coffee, alcohol, drugs, sex, damaging relationships etc). We use our addictions to constantly try to keep the pain of the past at bay, thereby preventing us from living fully in the present.

8) BIPOLAR DISORDER: this very serious disorder has been linked to experiences of childhood trauma and can involve very extreme fluctuations in mood; for example, a sufferer of this condition may feel elated and euphoric on one day and then feel in a state of suicidal despair the next. These moods can overtake sufferers ‘out of the blue’ and individuals who are affected by this illness tend to be far more governed by their feelings in life as opposed to rational thought and logical planning. Sufferers show marked instability, and, without treatment, can find it almost impossible to keep their lives in a state of equilibrium. If a person suspects s/he may suffer from this condition, it is essential to seek appropriate professional advice.

The final seven behaviours given on the list above are covered elsewhere on this website, simply click on them (below) to be taken directly to the relevant articles :



low self-esteem

suicidal behaviours

addictions to drugs/alcohol

chronic physical illness

– severe depression

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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