More often than not, mental health disorders – and the associated distressing symptoms they can cause – develop from unresolved trauma. Contrary to what some people may believe, the effects of childhood trauma tend to linger well throughout our lives.
There are several reasons for this, but ultimately, trauma during childhood causes adolescents to develop a heightened stress response. Learning how to regulate this response can be challenging, especially if an individual has become accustomed to their vulnerable nervous system. However, it is not impossible. Learning how to identify and overcome past trauma are critical components in healing from mental health conditions, including substance use disorders (SUD).
What Is Childhood Trauma?
Simply put, trauma results from an event or circumstance that causes physical, emotional, or life-threatening harm. Further, the traumatic situation causes lasting adverse effects on an individual’s well-being: including, but not limited to, their mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being.
The most important thing to understand about trauma is that it is subjective. In other words, seemingly traumatic situations affect everyone differently because everyone perceives trauma differently. This stands true for all instances of trauma, regardless if the instance occurs one-time, multiple times, or occurs through long-lasting, repetitive events.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) explains that more than two-thirds of children report experiencing at least one traumatic event before they are 16 years old. To better understand what type of events may lead to trauma, SAMHSA provides the following examples:
- Psychological, physical, or sexual abuse
- Community or school violence
- Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence
- National disasters or terrorism
- Commercial sexual exploitation
- Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
- Refugee or war experiences
- Military family-related stressors like deployment, parental loss, or injury
- Physical or sexual assault
- Serious accidents or life-threatening health conditions
Trauma and the Brain
As mentioned previously, trauma can lead to long-lasting changes in the brain and body. More specifically, it can lead to a heightened and dysregulated stress response.
The normal human brain experiences a plethora of changes in both structure and functioning as a result of appropriate developmental processing. Typically, these positive changes help us better connect to and relate to our environment. But exposure to trauma, especially at crucial developmental stages, can produce abnormal brain structure and functioning deficits. As a result, in addition to a heightened stress response, trauma can lead to emotional dysregulation, impulsivity, impaired decision-making, and lack of motivation, among other things.
The Nervous System
The nervous system is comprised of two systems: the autonomic and somatic. The autonomic nervous system is broken down even further into the following systems: the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems.
When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight system, is activated. As a result, our body readies itself to fight the stressful stimulus or flee from it. Once the threat has passed or been resolved, our parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest-and-digest system, works to slow down our internal body systems.
Trauma interferes with how these systems are regulated and activated. Traumatic events overstimulate these systems, leaving our fight-or-flight system consistently on edge. Similarly, due to this hyperactivated system, we cannot calm down and allow our rest-and-digest system to function correctly. Thus, many people who have unresolved trauma may feel constant anger, restlessness, panic, and anxiety, even during situations that are not life-threatening.
This becomes even more evident for those who have experienced chronic trauma throughout their lives, especially throughout their childhood. For these individuals, their nervous system becomes conditioned to live in a constant state of fear. This may cause people to feel triggered by things throughout their adulthood that are entirely unrelated to their past trauma.
Healing From Trauma
It is essential to understand that healing from trauma is possible. Although it may seem daunting to revisit past instances of trauma, many treatment approaches are available that can enable you to heal from trauma without becoming re-traumatized from treatment. The primary treatment approach is known as trauma-informed therapy.
Trauma-informed therapy takes into account an individual’s history of trauma. As a result, it is designed with the client in mind to ensure that the client feels safe and comfortable as they work through their past experiences. Important components involved in trauma-informed therapy include:
- Education: Education about trauma is vital for clients, as it helps individuals to understand what trauma is, how it impacts the mind and body, and why healthy coping skills are an essential component of a successful recovery from it.
- Skill training: Skills training helps clients to learn skills that can help them appropriately cope with their trauma. Training can help aid in relaxation techniques, promote positive thinking, and strengthen problem-solving skills.
- Support: Support helps clients to reap the benefits of social and emotional support when healing from trauma. Support can come from friends, family members, and mental health professionals.
Childhood trauma can result from a combination of environmental stressors and experiences. If left unresolved, it can lead to many lingering mental health challenges, including problematic substance use. If you wonder if your childhood trauma is still affecting you, it probably is. Luckily, treatment facilities like SoCal Mental Health can help. We are passionate about assisting clients to recover from the lasting effects of trauma through trauma-informed therapy. We believe it is essential that clients do not feel re-traumatized through treatment, so we prioritize using education, skills training, and professional support. To learn more about our treatment programs and for help, call us at (949) 502-2041.