Why Many Can’t Let Go Of Childhood Trauma :
Sadly, in the absence of effective therapies, such as dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy) or other forms of psychotherapy, the adverse effects of childhood trauma can endure for a lifetime. But why is it so hard to let go of childhood trauma and finally free ourselves from the intense psychological suffering that, for all too many of us, it entails, in some cases leading to a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, complex posttraumatic stress disorder, or some other appalling mental condition making the lives of those afflicted all but unendurable (or literally unendurable, as in the tragic cases of those who take their own lives)?
The reasons are complex and numerous, but I describe, as concisely as possible, some of the main ones below :
- MISDIAGNOSIS: many who go to see their doctors with mental ailments such as depression, anxiety, addiction and myriad other psychological complaints are treated only for the presenting problem with little or, more usually (in the UK, at least) no effort expense to uncover THE UNDERLYING CAUSE WHICH IS OFTEN CHILDHOOD TRAUMA. THUS, THE UNDERLYING TRAUMA REMAINS NOT ONLY UNTREATED BUT UNRECOGNIZED.
- THE BIOLOGICAL IMPACT OF TRAUMA: significant and protracted childhood trauma can adversely affect the physical development of the brain; for example, if a child grows up in an environment in which s/he is constantly made to feel anxious or fearful, the region of the brain called the amygdala may be harmed, resulting in difficulties controlling intense emotions; this is known as emotional dysregulation.
- DISSOCIATION: the child’s childhood experiences may become so psychologically painful that, as an automatic defence mechanism, he shuts down his emotions to block off the conscious experience of them, entering a state of emotional numbness; this phenomenon is known as dissociation. However, the trauma will still negatively impact on the child on an unconscious level without his/her conscious awareness that this is the case. Therefore, when he is an adult, he may develop various psychological problems (such as addictions) oblivious to their underlying cause.
- SUPPRESSION: because the memories of our traumatic experiences can be so painful, some try to force them out of their minds and suppress them.
- DENIAL AND MINIMIZATION: similarly, because it is so painful to accept that our parents, for example, might not have loved us or resented our very existence, we may, as a psychological defence mechanism, have entered a state of denial or have minimized the extent of the cruelty with which they treated us.
- LACK OF RECOGNITION: when we are children, we have nothing with which to compare our family situation and no frame of reference. Therefore, even those who grow up in very dysfunctional families may not realize how abnormal their upbringing was until much later in life.
- INVALIDATION: others may invalidate and undermine our perception of what happened to us as children as well as the pain we feel engendered by our early adverse experiences. For example, parents may deny they were abusive and ignorant members of society may glibly suggest that we ‘just get over it and move on’ ; such invalidating attitudes can be highly damaging.
- INTRUSIVE NEGATIVE THOUGHTS: those who have suffered childhood trauma often have intrusive negative thoughts such as ‘I am worthless’ or ‘I am unlovable.’ They may, too, suffer from flashbacks and nightmares.
- COMPLEXITY: interactions with our primary caretakers are extremely complex and although we might know there was something profoundly wrong with how they interacted with us whilst we were growing up, clearly identifying why this was can be an impossibly overwhelming task; there is simply too much data to process and analyze.
- SUBTLETY: out primary caretakers may have damaged us in subtle ways of which we are not consciously aware,
- DIFFICULTY TALKING ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED TO US: what happened to us may be too painful for us to talk about.
- IDEALIZATION OF PARENTS: we may idealize our parents even if they treated us very badly; this is a psychological defence which you can read about in one of my previous articles by clicking here.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.