The hurt child can grow into a troubled adult. In the United States, there are nearly one million substantiated reports of physical and sexual abuse of children each year.
The grownup knows they cannot change the past. So, to avoid suffering, their brains try to repress those stressful memories of early trauma.
However, the body keeps the score. It keeps expressing signs of the old hurts.
Repressed memories are memories that have been pushed out of conscious awareness due to the emotional pain associated with them. However, even though those memories are not consciously reachable, they can still affect a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
But these repressed trauma memories can present as sudden onset of acute headache or extreme fatigue after a minor insult. They can often be traced back to their early trauma.
Repressing the painful memories of childhood trauma is a defense against future pain from those experiences.
10 Troubling Signs of Repressed Childhood Trauma In Adults
Repressed trauma memories can have a significant impact on your life, even if you’re not consciously aware of them.
You may feel emotionally empty in many emotionally charged situations. You may find it difficult to trust or have intimacy in relationships.
Here are ten signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults:
1. Unhealthy Attachments
An adult with repressed childhood trauma can have difficulty forming secure attachments.
Attachment in psychology means the relationship between children and their caregivers, mostly their parents or guardians. Let’s go over the types of attachments that children may form.
Bowlby’s Attachment Theory (1944) defines four attachment styles: Secure, Avoidant, Ambivalent, and Disorganized.
- Secure attachment style children feel secure, understood, and calm with their parents, which leads to self-awareness, empathy, trust, and curiosity. When frightened, they seek comfort from their parents. They are sociable people with trusting and long-lasting relationships.
- Avoidant ones hesitate to open up to their partners or let anyone get too close. It is their way of saving themselves from the hurt of being abandoned.
- Ambivalent types are a box of contradictions. They will seek attention and contact while also resisting contact and being angry toward their partner.
- Disorganized ones take on parental roles and try being the mom or the dad in the relationship.
Except for the secure type, all other types of attachment can be the result of childhood trauma.
The insecure attachment style children tend to grow up into adults who are afraid of closeness and intimacy, and as a result, their relationships are never fulfilling.
2. Unstable Relationships
Repressed childhood trauma may make it difficult to build enduring relationships based on trust.
The traumatized child may grow into an adult who lacks trust in others.
They may not even realize that their relationships are falling apart because they actually have a hard time trusting others, which stems from their childhood.
Children raised by neglectful or indifferent caregivers may grow up with a strong fear of abandonment.
We may see some of these people as “clingy” types. They:
- seek approval from their partner for even minor decisions,
- always try to avoid conflicts to not upset their relationship,
- feel jealous when their partner spends time with others,
- are anxious, and fearful of desertion, when separated.
Clinginess in a relationship is the tendency to “cling” to the other person to avoid being apart from them. They need attention and reassurance and demand that their partner proves their loyalty and love.
Clinginess in a person often comes from attachment issues and emotionally dramatic past relationships. However, it is normal to feel clingy occasionally in one’s early 20s.
They typically become possessive of their partners, jealous that someone else will steal them away, or afraid that they might leave them.
These insecurities lead them to test their relationships in unnatural ways, like temporary ghosting.
Ghosting is a form of “breakup strategy“ in which a partner abruptly cuts off contact with the other person without any explanation, and ignores them when the ghosted person reaches out to them.
They will vanish without a trace while keeping an eye on what efforts the other person is making to connect with them.
They may even protest that their partner did not do enough to find and contact them.
Partners of such people often feel it is a difficult task being related to them. Frequently, they do what the traumatized person fears they will do, that is, break up with them.
Breakups in romantic relationships are common:
- Up to 70% of college students have experienced it (Zusman & Nieves, 1998).
- Breakups may cause depression and anger (Donald & Dower, 2006).
- Most breakups are non-mutual (Sprecher, 1994). Ghosting is one type.
- Attachment avoidance has been linked to a less direct breakup strategy (Collins & Gillath, 2012).
3. People-pleasing Behaviors
People-pleasing is a defense mechanism that a child develops in response to parental abuse.
These people are referred to as “other-pleasing decision-makers” in science. These individuals make decisions based on signals about the other person’s expectations.
The child learns that when they praise or try to please their abuser in any other way, it makes the abuser less harsh and punitive.
This people-pleasing behavior gets translated into victims finding it hard to say no to others. They also keep feeling responsible for the reactions and emotions of others.
4. Sleeping Issues
Adults may have repeated nightmares about their childhood traumatic events, which can make them chronic insomniacs.
Moreover, a consistent lack of sleep can make trauma symptoms worse, creating a vicious cycle of helplessness and sleeplessness.
Please note that now we can treat insomnia without any medications.
5. Memory Gaps
Memories are fragile, but their contents are powerful enough to make us fall apart.
So, sometimes our mind will try to protect us by burying the memory of trauma deep into our subconscious. It may lay there buried for years (until something triggers it to resurface).
Repressed memories symptoms in these people show up as gaps in their memories, which are repressed memory symptoms. They simply fail to remember that painful period of their life, no matter how hard they try.
It could make the future appear distant. This tendency to focus on the present without thinking about the future can push them to engage in risky behaviors.
They might also present with confabulation. It means making up false memories when there are no memories.
Confabulation is the act of fabricating memories to fill in memory gaps when a person with a memory problem is not aware that the memories they are fabricating are false.
The majority of researchers currently hold that it is rare for an adult to forget a childhood trauma completely, and that recovered memories are often inaccurate (Otgaar & Howe, 2019).
“Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on — unchanged and immutable — as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.”– Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
6. Hypervigilance And Hyperarousal
Two related signs of repressed trauma in adults are:
- Hypervigilance — an exaggerated intensity of behaviors to detect threats paired with high sensory sensitivity, and
- Hyperarousal — high psychological and physiological tension resulting in reduced pain tolerance, anxiety, hypersensitivity to sensory input, sleeplessness, and fatigue.
People who have experienced trauma may be constantly on guard, looking for signs of danger.
Such a state of persistent hyperarousal can make them irritable and anxious, as well as cause an exaggerated startle response.
Their hyperactive sensory system scanning for dangers may make them extraordinarily sensitive to touch, noise, and even smells.
“Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”– Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
7. Physical & Mental Health Issues
People who have been traumatized in their childhood can be more vulnerable to developing both physical and mental health conditions.
Freezing is a typical trauma response, particularly in children. Years later, this habituated freeze response manifests as a variety of physical symptoms.
Childhood trauma victims are more likely to have depression and mood disorders.
People who were emotionally abused as children are more likely to get migraines when they grow up (Gretchen & Brandes, 2010). Other studies have found that people who experienced different types of maltreatment, like physical abuse or neglect, are also more likely to get migraines.
Eating disorders, such as a preference for comfort foods and induced vomiting after meals, may be signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults.
This study found a small relationship (r-value of .10) between an eating disorder illness and a history of childhood sexual abuse (CSA).
Some victims resort to maladaptive food habits to cope with post-traumatic stress. The 3 common eating disorders they may suffer from are bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating.
Child trauma survivors may also take to purging or controlling portions strictly to regain some control over their bodies or to escape painful memories and emotions.
8. Self-destructive Behaviors
One of the symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood is having a self-destructive streak.
Self-destructive behaviors are behaviors that harm oneself physically or emotionally. They can include things like substance abuse, self-harm, and risky sexual behavior.
Childhood trauma survivors can indulge in excessive drinking and smoking, and substance abuse. These behaviors can also lead to further problems, like getting arrested.
Their low self-esteem paints a flawed self-image, which may include patches of guilt, inadequacy, and unworthiness. These can lead them to cause self-harm and have self-destructive thoughts.
A few reasons why adults with repressed trauma memories might engage in self-destructive behaviors:
- To escape the emotional numbness: Repressed memories can be distressing and overwhelming. They can bring up feelings of fear, anger, sadness, regret, and guilt, which can be difficult to cope with. Self-destructive behaviors can be a way of trying to numb or escape from these feelings.
- To feel in control of their lives: Repressed memories can make people feel like being at the mercy of their emotions and not in control of their thoughts, emotions, and lives. They can feel like they cannot trust themselves. Self-destructive behaviors can be a way of feeling like they are in control, even if it is only in a destructive way.
- To make others see their pain: Repressed memories can make people feel isolated and alone. They may feel like they are the only ones who have ever experienced what they have experienced. Self-destructive behaviors can be a way of reaching out for help, even if it is in a subconscious way.
9. Poor Emotion Control
People with repressed memories of early life traumas may have poor emotional regulation.
- The grown-up hurt child may have difficulty managing emotional ups and downs.
- they may experience intense emotions easily but have difficulty controlling these emotions.
- They struggle to express their needs to others or respond appropriately to their own needs.
- This can lead to problems such as outbursts of anger and aggression, anxiety or panic attacks, and depression.
- They may not feel safe expressing their emotions to others, for fear of being judged or rejected.
- They can have feelings of isolation and loneliness, which can further contribute to poor emotional control.
10. Tendency To Play Safe
Adults with repressed trauma may have a tendency to play safe because they are afraid of being hurt again.
They may avoid taking risks or doing things that could potentially trigger memories of the trauma. This can manifest in a variety of ways, such as:
- Avoidance of certain situations or people. They stay away from situations that might trigger memories of the traumatic event. For example, someone who was abused by a parent may avoid spending time with their own children or other children.
- Rigid routines. People who have experienced trauma may need to have a lot of control over their environment in order to feel safe. They may stick to a strict routine and avoid anything that is unpredictable.
- Passivity. People who have been traumatized may be afraid to take charge of their lives. They may let others make decisions for them and avoid taking risks.
- Low self-esteem. Trauma can damage a person’s self-esteem. They may believe that they are not worthy of happiness or success. This can make them hesitant to try new things or put themselves out there.
- Hypersensitivity to rejection: They are always wary of exposing themselves to any situation where they may be criticized or insulted. They may develop Rejection Sensitivity disorder.
“For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.”– Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), or childhood trauma, are significant, often threatening, and abusive events that overwhelm a child’s capacity to cope. These events may be caused by external factors like “mob justice” or internal factors like parental neglect.
A 2009 report says every year, about 4-16% of children are physically abused and one in ten is neglected or psychologically abused. During childhood, between 5% and 10% of girls and up to 5% of boys are exposed to penetrative sexual abuse, and up to three times this number are exposed to any type of sexual abuse (Gilbert, Widom, & Browne, 2009).
A 2016 British study found that almost half the study-subjects (46.4%) experienced at least one ACE, while 8.3% suffered 4 or more.
ACEs are traumatic events against which a child is unable to defend themself. Some common ACEs are:
- Loss of a loved one
- Bullying, ostracism, and racism
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Financial, emotional, or physical neglect
- Medical trauma like illness, accidents, and wrong treatment
- Parental divorce, domestic violence, substance use in the family
Childhood trauma can have a lifetime-long impact, even if repressed or forgotten.
An adult may not recall those early traumatic memories, but they will show signs that interfere with their normal functioning.
Left untreated, that early post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can give way to depression in later life.
Most of us remember our childhood trauma well into our adulthoods. However, some of us may forget them, while others may repress the memory of those events.
Forgetting is a useful coping strategy to deal with the painful past. But, despite the best efforts to erase memories of childhood trauma, “the body remembers.”
Later effects of traumatic events can come in many forms, like relationship difficulties. Often, they are indirect signs of early childhood trauma in adults.
Can Childhood Trauma Cause Adulthood Stress?
Yes, childhood trauma can cause adulthood stress. When a child experiences trauma, it can disrupt their development and make it difficult for them to cope with stress in adulthood.
Moreover, exposure to multiple ACEs can cause a heightened and long-lasting stress response, which can cause long-term harm.
Childhood trauma can be caused by a variety of factors, including abuse, neglect, violence, or witnessing a traumatic event. When a child experiences trauma, their brain and body go into a state of hyperarousal. This is a natural response to danger, but it can be harmful if it is prolonged.
The hyperarousal response can lead to a number of problems in adulthood, including:
- High levels of stress: People who have experienced childhood trauma are more likely to experience high levels of stress in adulthood. This can lead to problems with physical and mental health, as well as difficulty in relationships and work.
- Anxiety and depression: Childhood trauma can increase the risk of developing anxiety and depression in adulthood. These conditions can also make it difficult to cope with stress.
- Problems with relationships: People who have experienced childhood trauma may have difficulty trusting others and forming close relationships. They may also be more likely to engage in unhealthy relationships, such as those that are abusive or controlling.
- Self-destructive behaviors: People who have experienced childhood trauma may be more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse, self-harm, or risky sexual behavior. These behaviors can be a way of coping with the pain of trauma, but they can also lead to further problems.
As children, we begin learning how to handle stress and develop coping methods. However, when abuse or other traumas are repetitive, the child may not have the chance to develop coping mechanisms like a typical child.
Stress responses triggered by repeated parental maltreatment or a constantly dysfunctional home can stunt the growth of a child’s brain, immune system, and cardiovascular system.
How To Treat Childhood Trauma In Adults?
The trauma caused by childhood neglect, sexual or domestic abuse, and war wreaks havoc in our bodies, not just our minds. The process of healing from childhood trauma can be lengthy and challenging.
Psychotherapy models to treat childhood trauma:
- Play therapy,
- Somatic Experiencing,
- Meditative art therapy.
- Narrative exposure therapy,
- Positive movement therapy,
- Cognitive processing therapy,
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT),
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
Medical therapy may also be needed to help with the physical symptoms, like prescription analgesics for body aches, antacids for acid reflux diseases, and appetite stimulants for low desire to eat.
In some cases, trauma can be so deeply painful that the sufferers may need care under institutional admission. Those who feel a typical OPD clinic will not meet their needs can be treated in residential treatment centers.
Effects of Childhood Trauma
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) do not always cause trauma, but the greater the number of ACEs experienced, the greater the risk of it.
Indeed, there is a strong link between multiple traumatic events and serious difficulties in later life, as shown by studies.
Those with a history of multiple ACEs are more likely to abuse substances, fare poorly in academics, and even have early deaths (Hughes & Bellis, 2017).
Traumatized children may develop depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders in later life.
People with high numbers of Adverse Childhood Experiences are more likely to have weaker immunity and suffer from diseases such as cancer and emphysema.
Unhealed childhood trauma may have a brutal impact on adults, leaving them feeling worthless and lonely.
Psychological Childhood Trauma Signs In A Child
Children with traumatic experiences may have sleep disturbances, anger issues, physical complaints like belly aches and headaches, fears and nightmares, separation anxiety, and childhood depression.
How does unresolved childhood trauma manifest in adults?
Unresolved childhood trauma can manifest in adults as:
Emotional problems: Difficulty regulating emotions, causing anxiety, depression, anger, and fear. Adults with unresolved trauma may also experience emotional numbness or detachment.
Behavioral problems: Self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse, self-harm, and risky sexual behavior. It can also lead to relationship problems, such as difficulty trusting others, fear of intimacy, and controlling or abusive behavior.
Physical problems: Manifest physical problems, such as chronic pain, headaches, stomach problems, and sleep disturbances.
Cognitive problems: Affect thinking and memory. Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things.
Spiritual problems: Unresolved childhood trauma can also lead to spiritual problems, such as a loss of faith or a sense of emptiness.
What are the symptoms of repressed memories of past trauma?
Some symptoms of repressed trauma memories are:
Flashbacks: Sudden, involuntary memories of the traumatic event. They can be very vivid and upsetting.
Nightmares: Frightful dreams that are related to the traumatic event. They can be very disturbing and can make it difficult to sleep.
Dissociation: This is a mental state in which a person feels detached from themselves or their surroundings. It can be triggered by a traumatic event, making it difficult to remember the event.
Avoidance: A coping mechanism in which a person tries to avoid anything that reminds them of the traumatic event. They can avoid people, places, or activities.
Physical symptoms: Headaches, stomachaches, and other vague pains. They can be caused by the stress of the traumatic event or by the body’s attempt to cope with the memory. We, doctors, call it somatization, the presence of physical symptoms due to a psychiatric condition (such as anxiety).
Emotional problems: These can include anxiety, depression, anger, and fear. They can be caused by the traumatic event or by the stress of trying to repress the memory.
How do you know if you have unhealed childhood trauma?
It can be difficult to know if you have unhealed childhood trauma. However, these are some signs and symptoms that may indicate that you are struggling with the effects of past trauma:
1. Strong emotional reactions and difficulty regulating emotions like anxiety, anger, sadness, and fear.
2. Self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse, self-harm, and risky sexual behavior.
3. Difficulty trusting others, fear of intimacy, and controlling or abusive behavior. Failure to keep a job or maintain relationships.
4. Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things.
5. Feelings of shame, guilt, or worthlessness (low self-esteem). Detachment from self or one’s surroundings.
6. Chronic pain, headaches, stomach problems, and sleep disturbances.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to a mental health professional, therapist, or counselor to work through the unhealed trauma.
How to remember repressed childhood trauma?
The repressed memories of childhood trauma may show up in unusual ways. Those memories may resurface in an adult’s life through dreams, flashbacks, or a traumatic event that triggers the memory.
It can be difficult to predict when these repressed memories could resurface. So, it is essential to be aware of our mental struggles and to always seek adequate support for ourselves without feeling stigmatized. Hypnotherapy may help.
How to cope with unhealed childhood trauma?
These are some ways to cope with unhealed childhood trauma:
– Be patient with yourself, remembering that healing from trauma takes time.
– Find a safe place to talk about your experiences, like a trusted friend or family member.
– Practice self-care, tending to your physical and emotional health, like exercise, relaxation techniques, or solo-traveling.
– Avoid triggers that remind you of the trauma.
– Learn healthy coping mechanisms from a therapist or a counselor.
– Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself for any mistakes you made in the past.
Childhood stress is a reality. Words hurt a child more than you can imagine.
A child heaped with psychological trauma can carry lifelong scars and have acute stress and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in adulthood.
Such an adult’s internal environment can be described as distressing, emotionally numb, and riddled with intrusive thoughts.
They can even suffer life-threatening conditions such as eating disorders (like anorexia or overeating).
One more issue is that they often deny being abused due to a lack of a safe outlet.
The victims of childhood traumas need a safe place to talk about their experiences, learn to accept the past, and build psychological resilience. These could be achieved with a trusted friend or family member, therapist, or counselor.
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Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher.
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