Every day, we see images and read stories about people in deeply distressing situations. As a result, psychological trauma is no longer a hidden or silent epidemic, but trauma – and its long-term impact – remains misunderstood and under-diagnosed.
As a psychologist, I see the scars of developmental trauma all too often in my adult patients.
Developmental trauma is the result of loss, abandonment, abuse and neglect during childhood, which disrupts the child’s sense of safety. Neglect and abuse are a daily reality for millions of U.S. children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016 there were 676,000 victims of child abuse and neglect reported to child protective services.
Experts believe that 1 out of 4 children may experience maltreatment in their lifetime, and 1 in 7 children have likely experienced abuse or neglect in the last year. While children are resilient, they are still fragile, and they can carry wounds with them into adulthood.
There can be lifelong consequences of adverse childhood experiences and, on average, the earlier the distress, the more profound the effect.
In adulthood, developmental trauma manifests in many ways. Survivors have an elevated risk for cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, diabetes and arthritis. Changes in brain development have been observed in areas linked to memory, learning, emotion regulation and self-control. Challenges with identity formation and self-worth are prevalent along with high rates of depression, anxiety, shame and anger, as well as suicide attempts, self-harm, risk-taking and substance dependence.
Childhood experiences lay the groundwork for future attachments. Survivors can have difficulty forming and sustaining relationships due to profound issues with trust and intimacy. Some adults may be driven to revisit unresolved trauma, repeating the same behaviors and patterns they experienced or witnessed as children.
While trauma does leave a lasting impact, humans also have the ability to heal and make positive changes. For survivors, fostering overall well-being and good health is imperative. Research shows that the more often survivors engage in health-promoting activities – like exercise, socializing and education —the better their welfare, even after considering chronic conditions.
To assuage trauma, survivors are encouraged to address and resolve the thoughts and emotions from when the trauma occurred. Treatment helps survivors learn to trust and connect to others in a healthy way and regain emotional balance. Finding a therapist who is a trauma specialist and a good fit may take time and a few tries. Therapies may include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and a variety of interventions may be used to ensure a tailored approach.
Healing takes courage, honesty and commitment, as well as patience and hard work. Growth and recovery takes time, and each person heals at his or her own pace. The journey is not linear, and some scars can still remain.
If you are a loved one of a trauma survivor, your support is crucial. Take time to learn about trauma. Be patient and understand that survivors cannot “just let it go” or “move on.” Be a good listener who validates feelings, respects boundaries, keeps promises and avoids judgments. Do not take symptoms, like emotional outbursts, personally. Be careful not to be drawn into attempts to re-enact past ineffective cycles. Most importantly, take care of yourself and manage stress.
Disrupting the cycle of intergenerational trauma and limiting the impact of adversities for future children begins with empowering adults to confront the past, live fully in the moment and see hope and potential in the future.
Marissa Borrello, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices adult behavioral medicine at Presbyterian Medical Group on Wyoming NE in Albuquerque.