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therapy for childhood trauma can help adults and children

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By age 16, more than two-thirds of children report experiencing at least one traumatic event, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Fortunately, the right therapy can help children, adolescents, teens, and adults find ways to heal and cope with the effects of traumatic experiences like abuse, community violence, natural disasters, neglect, and sudden loss of a loved one.

Here, we discuss childhood trauma, the different types, how it may affect you, signs to be aware of, and treatment options for children and adults.

What is childhood trauma?

A traumatic event poses a threat to a child’s life or physical safety. This includes events that are frightening, dangerous, or violent.

For some kids, there may be no time for healing between traumatic events — their life is in an almost constant state of chronic stress and trauma.

Examples of childhood trauma include:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • psychological and emotional abuse
  • neglect
  • natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, or fires
  • homelessness
  • racism
  • serious accidents or life threatening illness
  • violent loss of a loved one
  • sexual exploitation
  • refugee and war experiences
  • community and school violence
  • witnessing or experiencing family or partner violence
  • military stressors like loss, injury, or parental deployment

How childhood trauma may affect you

Childhood trauma affects each person differently. However, there are some common signs and symptoms to watch out for in both kids and adults.

In preschool and elementary-age children:

  • separation anxiety
  • becoming anxious and fearful
  • difficulty sleeping and increase in nightmares
  • crying or acting out
  • decrease in appetite
  • moodiness
  • increased aggression and anger

Teens can experience all of the signs mentioned above, plus the following:

  • irritability
  • withdrawal from social activities
  • academic problems
  • self-blame for the event (guilt and shame)
  • feeling depressed
  • difficulty concentrating
  • eating disorders and other self-harm behaviors
  • increase in behaviors like sexual activity and alcohol or drug use

In adults, unresolved childhood trauma can take on many forms. For example, female adults who experience sexual abuse as a child or teen often show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), distorted self-perception, shame, fear, guilt, self-blame, humiliation, and chronic physical pain, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Adults dealing with PTSD from childhood trauma can struggle in their jobs, interpersonal relationships, and with their own mental health.

Here are some emotional, physical, and behavioral signs to be aware of:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • panic attacks
  • poor concentration
  • fatigue
  • impulsiveness
  • problems with sleep
  • chronic health conditions
  • compulsion
  • self-harm
  • chronic stress and inflammation
  • isolation
  • eating disorders
  • suicidal ideation

What other mental health conditions may be related to childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma can have consequences well into adulthood. One 2019 study found that adults in psychiatric outpatient programs experienced a higher rate of traumatic events as kids compared to adults not in treatment.

Another 2019 study looked at data from 1,420 participants and found that those with childhood trauma experienced adverse outcomes in adulthood including mental illness, addiction, and health problems.

The participants were interviewed annually as children and then four more times during adulthood (at ages 19, 21, 25, and 30) over 22 years.

Of the 1,420 participants, 30.9 percent said they experienced one traumatic childhood event, 22.5 percent experienced two traumatic events, and 14.8 percent experienced three or more.

The effects of trauma at a young age can result in mental health conditions including:

  • PTSD
  • anxiety disorders
  • major depressive disorder
  • eating disorders
  • substance and alcohol use disorders

Experiencing sexual abuse as a child can also increase suicide ideation in adults, according to results from a 2017 survey.

What’s the outlook for people who’ve experienced childhood trauma?

Long-term effects of childhood trauma can increase the risk of mental health conditions like PTSD and depression, chronic illness, or substance use disorders.

However, with the right therapy, the outlook for people who’ve experienced childhood trauma is positive.

Depending on the type of trauma and how long it occurred, treatment may take a while, especially if you’re addressing these issues as an adult.

The bottom line

Therapy for childhood trauma can help lessen the impact of abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, natural disasters, and serious accidents or life threatening illnesses.

Addressing these issues during childhood or adolescence can reduce the risk of developing mental health issues like anxiety and depression or chronic conditions. However, seeking treatment as an adult is also beneficial, helping you identify trauma and deal with its effects.

Childhood Trauma in Adults

The SAMHSA’s National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative (NCSTI) reports that by the age of 16, two-thirds of children report experiencing at least one traumatic event. According to the American Psychological Association, “A traumatic event is one that threatens injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others and also causes horror, terror, or helplessness at the time it occurs.”

This can encompass many different situations and may be different for each person that comes in contact with that event.

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Symptoms of Trauma in Adults

Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults

There are a number of different ways in which symptoms can manifest for adults living with childhood trauma. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut recipe to follow when diagnosing an adult with immediate signs of trauma, however, there may be some common physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms of trauma victims. Listed below are just a few common warning signs of childhood trauma in adults:

Emotional Symptoms

  • Anger
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Depression
  • Panic Attacks

Physical Symptoms

  • Poor Concentration
  • Shakiness
  • Night Terrors
  • Lack of Energy
  • Physical Illness
  • Sleep Disturbances

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Compulsion
  • Eating Disorders
  • Impulsiveness
  • Isolation
  • Numbness or Callousness
  • General disorientation

Keep in mind that these are just a few common symptoms of trauma victims, and often times many people can exhibit a number of these symptoms or may even show none at all. If you or someone you know are showing signs of trauma, it is important to seek immediate professional help. Highland Springs Specialty Clinic is a renowned trauma and PTSD treatment center in Utah. Please call us today for more information about our program and recovery methods.

Potentially traumatic events can include:

  • Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse
  • Community or school violence
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Sudden or violent death of a loved one
  • Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, disasters or terrorism
  • Refugees or war experiences
  • Neglect
  • Assault
  • Serious accidents
  • Life-threatening illness

If untreated, childhood trauma can have long-lasting effects. Trauma can affect children’s mood and their ability to regulate their emotions, they are 2 times more likely to develop depression and 3 times more likely to develop anxiety. The sooner the trauma is addressed through therapy, the better the chance for the child to have a full and successful recovery.

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What does childhood trauma look like in adults?

Childhood trauma in adults can impact experiences and relationships with others due to experienced feelings of shame, and guilt. Childhood trauma also results in feeling disconnected, and being unable to relate to others. Studies have shown that adults that experience childhood trauma were more likely to struggle controlling emotions, and had heightened anxiety, depression, and anger.

Common Trauma Misconceptions

Childhood trauma in adults doesn’t necessarily mean they will be unable to have a full life. If, however, trauma starts affecting an individual’s day-to-day life it is important to seek professional help. Many people have misconceptions when it comes to adults affected by childhood trauma. Here are 3 common misconceptions related to childhood trauma;

  1. An individual who was abused and/or neglected as a child will abuse and/or neglect their own children
  2. Abused and neglected children will become deviant adults, and
  3. The effect of abuse and/or neglect are irreparable, and the adult won’t live a full life of recovery.

This is false! Overcoming childhood trauma in adults is possible through therapy. The first step to healing is finding a childhood trauma therapist who can help navigate the individual through the trauma and/or neglect. Therapy for childhood trauma is typically provided in an outpatient setting through group and/or individual therapy.

Treatments for Overcoming Childhood Trauma

Dealing with childhood trauma is a complex but necessary process. Through therapy, adults can overcome childhood trauma. They can raise happy and healthy families, be productive citizens, and have a fulfilling life.

Here are some evidence-based treatments for treating childhood trauma in adults:

Cognitive Processing Trauma Therapy (CPT)

Cognitive processing therapy is a specialized type of cognitive trauma healing therapy used to treat patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A typical 12-session period has been shown to reduce trauma in veterans, sexual assault victims, and children who have experienced abuse or trauma. The main focus of CPT is to recontextualize and help rationalize the traumatic events experienced by the victim.

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Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that provides trauma healing for adults. Specifically focused on trauma, that helps patients change destructive patterns such as negative emotional, behavioral, and thought patterns into positive solutions through the use of awareness and cognitive responses. Clinicians have found success using TF-CBT in children, adolescents, and traumatized adults in 8-25 period sessions.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is another form of therapy for childhood trauma. EMDR is a form of psychotherapy in which a subject will recall traumatic memories while moving their eyes from side to side in a rhythmic pattern. This treatment has shown success in decreasing the negative effects associated with PTSD. EMDR typically lasts for 6-12 sessions.

Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET)

Narrative exposure therapy aims to treat individuals with complex and multiple incident trauma. NET involves a chronologically laying a patient’s life out and putting into context the events of their life at both positive and traumatic points. The goal of NET to help the patient refine and understand traumatic events by putting one’s life events into context. NET is a short-term therapy typically ranging from 4-10 sessions.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy

Prolonged exposure therapy, sometimes referred to as flooding, is a type of behavioral cognitive therapy in which a patient is exposed to traumatic memories to help them understand and rationalize those events. Prolonged exposure therapy has had decades of success with patients suffering from PTSD related depression, panic attacks, and anxiety. Sessions typically last 15 weeks or longer.

Healing childhood trauma in adults is a daunting and difficult task but it is possible through therapy. Luckily, continuing research and developments in the field are revealing more effective ways of treating trauma. In particular, EMDR therapy is a newly emerging form of therapy that has had substantial success in treating PTSD.

EMDR is unique in that rather than discussing and reliving the trauma, its focus is on the emotions associated with that trauma in conjunction with bilateral sensory input. Every person reacts to trauma in different ways. For a better understanding of treating trauma, contact a professional therapist for a trauma diagnosis.

Center For Healing Childhood Trauma

Don’t let trauma dictate your life, there are multiple Highland Springs Specialty Clinic locations in Utah that specialize in diagnosing and treating childhood trauma. Our renowned therapists are committed to helping you and your loved ones!

Learn more about our trauma therapy program here, or call us today to speak with a specialist.

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Dr. Thatcher the DO, CMRO Chief Medical Officer of Valley Cares.

Dr. Thatcher, DO, CMRO, works with the Valley Behavioral Health’s Director of Nursing providing supervision and oversight of medical operations for over 70 medical staff members and medical issues in over 70 clinics and facilities in Utah, Boise Idaho, and Phoenix Arizona.

His major medical initiatives include telehealth, integrated care, medication-assisted treatment, and substance abuse services, forensics services, and seamless integration of jail/prison/mental health court & drug court/probation/parole services with behavioral health and substance abuse treatment, ValleyLab blood and urine drug testing, data analytics to drive better outcomes & computerized automation of standardized measurement tools, and Brainsway Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation clinic.