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The Lasting Impact of Childhood Trauma

It's an unfortunate reality that many children experience traumatic events - anything from abuse, neglect, loss of a parent, witnessing violence, and other profoundly distressing situations. While the trauma itself is painful, the impacts can reverberate through the rest of childhood and into adulthood in insidious ways.

One of the common coping mechanisms children develop after going through trauma is to "hold everything in" and shut down emotionally. There are a few reasons this tends to happen:

  1. It's a self-protection instinct. When a child experiences something terrifying or abusive, their brain learns that displaying intense emotions can make them more vulnerable and trigger additional trauma. So they bottle up feelings like fear, sadness, and anger as a survival mechanism.
  2. They lack emotional outlets. Young children don't have the language, perspective, or support system to process and express intense emotions in a healthy way. Caregivers who are perpetrators of abuse also actively discourage displays of emotion.
  3. Dissociation becomes a habit. Shutting down and disconnecting from reality can help children escape traumatic situations mentally and emotionally when they can't remove themselves physically. This dissociative coping style then becomes an engrained habit.

The problem is that this approach of continually holding everything in and staying shut down emotionally tends to persist long past childhood and the original trauma. It becomes the adult's default way of coping, even when they consciously want to move on. Old emotional shut-down habits are extremely hard to break.

This leads to adults who struggle with emotional intimacy, have difficulty expressing thoughts and feelings, are prone to emotional numbness or explosive outbursts, and lack self-awareness about their inner emotional experience. Their trauma remains unresolved and unhealed, leaving them disconnected from themselves and others.

A Case Example

"Sarah," a 35-year-old client, displayed the pattern of emotional shut-down and dissociation that often stems from childhood trauma. In our early sessions, she reported feeling disconnected from her emotions much of the time.

"It's like there's this void inside me. I know I must have feelings, but I can't access them or put words to what I'm feeling," she explained. Sarah also had minimal autobiographical memory about her childhood before age 12 - that period was a blur.

As we explored her background, Sarah didn't consciously recall any overt childhood traumas. However, she did describe her mother as frequently cold, unavailable, and shaming. Her father traveled extensively for work and was emotionally distant when present. The family environment discouraged the free expression of emotions.

Sarah's shut-down tendencies seemed to be a learned way of coping with the emotional neglect and invalidation she experienced as a child. Shutting off her emotions and dissociating was an instinctive defense against craving an emotional connection that never materialized.

Through therapy techniques like EMDR and somatic experiencing, memories and body sensations associated with her emotional deprivation as a young child began to surface. Sarah had to consciously relearn how to stay present and tolerate her feelings of sadness, fear, and anger.

Slowly, she made progress in expanding her emotional awareness and allowing herself to experience her full range of emotions, both past and present. But it was an uphill battle to override the deeply ingrained habit of shutting down that protected her as a child but persisted into adulthood in unhealthy ways.

The example illustrates how emotionally shut-down adults may have no explicit memories of childhood trauma, but their coping style points to attachment wounds and unmet emotional needs from formative years. Healing requires regaining access to long-suppressed emotions.

Here are some resources:

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Impacts Adult Relationships and How to Heal

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Narcissism

Schema Therapy manual

There is no experience without embodiment. There is no embodiment without experience, no existence without a body. Because I am embodied I exist.—Stanley Keleman

Fight/Flight/Freeze responses