Understanding The Effects Of Childhood Trauma On Adult Mental Health And Seeking Help

Updated June 17, 2024by MyTherapist Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Experiencing childhood trauma has effects that last far beyond a singular traumatic event. When children experience trauma in early childhood frequently referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) the effects of that trauma can last for years after the trauma has occurred. In severe cases, the effects of childhood trauma can last for the rest of their adult lives and manifest as chronic physical ailments or a proclivity to engage in risky behaviors.

When childhood trauma impacts adulthood in such ways, many people wonder if it’s possible to cope and move forward. Is it possible to overcome childhood trauma in adulthood? What are the most effective treatment approaches for healing childhood emotional wounds? In this article, we discuss symptoms of childhood trauma that are typically observable in adulthood, the potential impacts of experiencing or witnessing trauma in early childhood, and strategies for coping effectively in the face of stress.

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Untreated childhood trauma can be healed in adulthood

Symptoms of childhood trauma in adults

Early childhood trauma involves traumatic experiences that occur in a child's life when they are between the ages of 0-6. According to mental health researchers, the earlier in their lives that a child experiences trauma, the longer lasting the effects are likely to be. Examples of childhood trauma include being a witness to or survivor of domestic violence, family violence, neighborhood violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, natural disasters, or war.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the situations described above, you can reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline or call their 24/7 number at 800-799-7233. You can alternatively text START to 88788.

Symptoms of childhood trauma in adults are affected by early exposure. Earlier exposure to traumatic events in childhood can affect brain development, and these effects may not show up until later in life. When the symptoms of childhood trauma do manifest in adulthood, they often show up in the form of developmental disorders or mental health disorders. The damaging and traumatic effects of experiencing childhood trauma last a lifetime.

Traumatic events experienced at an early age can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that affects approximately 3.6% (or 7.7 million) of the American population annually. PTSD normally develops in response to being a part of or witnessing a highly traumatic event, such as a morbid death, cataclysmic natural disaster, or sexual assault. Other examples of events that can trigger PTSD include war, domestic violence, vehicular accidents, and being taken hostage or kidnapped.

People who experience more than one trauma in their lifetime often end up experiencing a complex form of post-traumatic stress disorder called C-PTSD. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is a more severe form of post-traumatic stress that happens as a result of compounding trauma. The situation with complex post-traumatic stress is the same in that, the earlier in childhood that people are exposed to these compounding traumas, the more severe their symptoms are likely to be in adulthood. Adults who have been recently diagnosed with this new form of PTSD are likely to be screened for childhood trauma during their initial consultation with mental health care providers.

Other common symptoms of childhood trauma in adults include the development of substance use disorders and addiction issues with alcohol which often coincide with a mental health diagnosis. When people get treatment for childhood trauma that have compounding issues like alcohol addiction or substance use, they should seek treatment for all of the issues concurrently. For example, a person who is in therapy for childhood trauma and who also has an addiction to alcohol will be required to attend additional therapy sessions and participate in programs for alcohol treatment simultaneously.

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When you visit a psychiatrist or other licensed mental health professional for assessment and screening, you'll be presented with a series of questionnaires, including a childhood trauma questionnaire or the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Questionnaire that asks questions about the first 18 years of your life to determine if you're potentially experiencing the effects of traumatic childhood events.

Overcoming childhood trauma

The first step to overcoming early childhood trauma is to acknowledge the reality that your pain is not only stemming from a valid mental health issue but also as a physical medical issue. Trauma has a lasting effect on the body and mind. It can leave deep emotional wounds that manifest in the body as chronic aches, pains, and other somatic symptoms.

Begin by acknowledging the effects that childhood trauma has had on you. Once you realize that you have been affected by childhood trauma, the next step is to reach out for support from a licensed professional. If you're not sure where to start, you can request a child trauma questionnaire to screen for a childhood diagnosis. However you proceed, strive not to blame yourself. You didn't have any choice in your circumstances as a child, and you didn't ask to witness or experience what you went through.

Early childhood trauma can interrupt brain development, which can lead to other physical health symptoms in the body. As more research is done on the effects of mental illness on the body, mental health care and medical health providers are working in tandem to develop a holistic solution which treats both the body and the mind.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the methods of treatment that today's behavioral health professionals use for helping clients overcome mental health trauma. Trauma-informed therapy helps people who have experienced traumatic events in their lives to find understanding, relief, and new ways to cope.

One of the main components of overcoming the effects of childhood trauma is to be honest with yourself about the process. Being honest with yourself as you begin the process of healing means understanding that you may have a long road to walk and committing yourself to the process anyway. Acknowledge what happened to you. Be kind to the child or teenager who had to do what they did in order to survive. 

Getting therapy and medication management allows mental health clients to improve the quality of their lives and requires a daily commitment to the process. Committing to the process means attending all scheduled therapy sessions, taking all prescribed medications, and incorporating new coping strategies and skills into everyday life.

Heal from childhood trauma using online therapy

Online therapy options are available for adult survivors of childhood trauma who are still experiencing the negative effects later in life. Cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of psychotherapy are available, and you can book sessions with your counselor at times that work for your schedule. Additionally, there is no need to travel to an in-person therapist’s office. You can meet virtually with your dedicated counselor from the comfort of your own home or office, provided you have a stable internet connection.

The certified mental health experts on MyTherapist can guide users down a path to wellness by teaching mindfulness techniques and using therapeutic approaches that enable a person to go through a meaningful process of forgiveness. The key to benefiting from therapy for PTSD or overcoming trauma is to try to have an open mind.

Your online therapist will ask you questions as an in-office therapist would. During your session, you and your therapist will discuss how your treatment plan is going and how taking part in therapy helps you make better decisions in your life. Flexibility is another key factor in your success with online therapy. Sometimes, you and your therapist will want to make adjustments to the plan. Always let your online counselor know how you’re feeling – they will not judge you for whatever information you have.

Getty/Andreea Campeanu
Untreated childhood trauma can be healed in adulthood

Online therapy has shown efficacy in reducing the symptoms of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and specific phobias, to name a few examples. In multiple studies, researchers have confirmed no significant differences in effectiveness between online therapy and face-to-face therapy.

Takeaway

Now that you understand the effects of childhood trauma on adult mental health, you can make more informed decisions when deciding to seek therapy and support. Over 57.8 million Americans annually experience symptoms of mental illness. Many of these people have experienced early childhood trauma, which aggravates their condition. You are not alone, and there are professionals trained in trauma-based therapy who are eager to be of service. When you’re ready to start forging a path toward healing, reach out to a MyTherapist online counselor today. You deserve to feel good.

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