Childhood Trauma and Relationship PTSD
sBefore we talk about childhood trauma and Relationship PTSD, let’s talk about trauma.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is experienced differently by everyone. Two people witnessing the same event might have different symptoms of trauma. Their past experiences and old coping skills also influence their response to a traumatic event.
We have several experiences throughout our lives. Those experiences get processed by our brain. Our mind stores the lessons we learn from those experiences and lets go of the parts of the experience that we don’t need.
Trauma is when our brain is unable to process experiences like it normally does. The experience gets stuck in our brain in its raw unprocessed form with the negative beliefs that were generated, physical sensations and feelings you felt.
You might forget details of the experience or the experience itself but the feelings, physical sensations and believes that was generated due to the experience take on a life of their own and start influencing our present.
Traumatic experiences also influence our belief system. We tend to develop negative beliefs like, “I cannot trust anyone”, “I am not lovable”, “I will always be alone”, etc.
Traumatic experiences disrupt our bodies ability to regulate our emotions. For example, we might be surprised by the intensity of our emotional response to a situation that might have been unpleasant but did not seem as threatening as our response to it.
The first thing I learnt at a trauma informed training is that time does not heal trauma.
Unresolved trauma can be triggered several years after the traumatic experience and the beliefs that were formed from these experiences will continue guiding our lives.
What is Childhood trauma?
As adults we tend to rationalize our parents’ actions. We say things like they did the best they could, “My parents had a lot on their plate, My mom could not be there for me.” As an adult you understand your parent’s situation, but as a little girl all you wanted was to be seen and valued.
That emotional absence of your mother for whatever reason has resulted in childhood trauma and the rationalization prevents you from recognizing your pain.
As a young child you develop an understanding that you cannot rely on anyone to take care of you. You can only rely on yourself. You learn to scan the room and meet other people’s needs and not occupy any space as a way to keep yourself safe.
Below are symptoms that people experience because of childhood trauma:
You might feel helpless, frustrated and stuck. You might feel on edge a lot of the time and don’t know what to do with that feeling and why you are having that feeling. You might feel like it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you still don’t feel fulfilled, content and relaxed.
You might feel lots of situations in your life can very easily trigger the stress response. Even though intellectually you know that those situations are not dangerous, but it feels like your body has a mind of its own and it triggers the fight-flight-freeze response.
Some of you might find yourself pleasing people and getting into codependent relationship dynamics. You might have a difficult time setting boundaries.
You might have formed a set of negative beliefs about yourself growing up because of your experiences which might be keeping you stuck.
You might feel like you have a hard time expressing your needs. A lot of the time you might not even know what you want or cannot accept what you want.
Some of you might be extremely independent, but have a hard time asking for help and connecting with yourself or people around you.
Even though you are a grown adult now, these old belief systems might still be guiding your present, resulting in emotional distress. Childhood trauma also affects our attachment patterns which influences our interpersonal relationships as adults.
You might find yourself in abusive adult relationships. You might be subconsciously making space for narcissistic toxic partners in your life.
I describe trauma from emotionally unavailable caregivers as a paper cut, which is painful when it happens but we forget about it. However, several of those paper cuts over and over again over a certain period of time can result in a painful gaping wound.
A single experience might not affect us as much emotionally, but multiple experiences over time can affect our belief system and our bodies capacity to emotionally regulate.
This type of trauma can occur throughout one’s life. Trauma in our childhood from emotional neglect can affect our quality of life and hold us back from making choices that would help us lead a content and happy life.
Most people don’t identify these experiences as traumatic.
The symptoms that generate from childhood trauma become a part of our everyday life. Overtime we figure out coping skills and develop protectors. Like, the people pleaser part, the emotional manager part, the self critic part, the anxious part, the avoidant part.
These parts make sure that we don’t do anything that makes us feel abandoned, lonely, and ashamed.
You might feel anxiety and experience depression as the traumatic experiences influence our belief about ourselves and interfere with our bodies natural capacity to regulate itself.
These feelings and beliefs guide how we interact with people in our lives, the choices we make and who we let into our lives. They influence what we think about ourselves and how we present ourselves to the world.
What is Relationship PTSD?
Being in an Abusive relationship can cause PTSD. In these relationships people feel powerless and helpless. People in abusive relationships experience manipulation, gaslighting, emotional and verbal abuse. There could be physical and sexual abuse as well. They doubt their own reality and walk on eggshells around the person. You feel invalidated and devalued.
Trauma from relationships is not limited to romantic relationships. It could be a result of in-law relationship, work relationships, friendships, sibling relationship any other relationship that you can think of has the potential of causing trauma.
According to DSM, someone is diagnosed with PTSD if they were directly exposed to trauma, witnessed the trauma, has regular exposure to details of traumatic events or learns about someone close to them going through trauma.
PTSD occurs when an incident leaves someone experiencing a direct threat to their life and/or leaves them feeling helpless and powerless.
A shift in your sleep patterns, emotional regulation, physical reaction, mood, level of alertness, level of concentration etc, right after a traumatic event makes it clear that these are symptoms of the trauma that your body and mind experienced and your mind needs help with processing that event in order to heal.
If PTSD is left untreated it can interfere with one’s body’s capacity to emotionally regulate and the fragmented sensory experiences and thoughts can interfere with their everyday life making it difficult for them to conduct basic functions like eating and sleeping, things that we take for granted.
Now that we have an over view about PTSD lets talked about the symptoms of PTSD in people who are currently in an abusive relationship or have been in one in the past.
Symptoms of trauma can continue even after the relationship ends
You might have ruminating thoughts.
You have intense disturbing memories.
Nightmares and flashes make it difficult to sleep.
You feel anxiety, anger, regret, fear, panic attacks.
You have a strong negative reaction to someone talking loudly or giving you a hug or touching you by accident.
You might notice that you are very alert and have difficulty with sleep and eating.
You carry a lot of blame and shame.
You go through a rollercoaster of thoughts and emotions.
You have a difficult time trusting people in romantic relationships or just trust people in general.
You might not lean on loved ones for support out of shame or you don’t want to burden them or you don’t think they will understand.
You might Isolate yourself
You lose trust in yourself
Someone going through relationship PTSD can also have a history of childhood trauma.
Unhealed childhood trauma makes us more susceptible to allowing toxic abusive people into our life.
If childhood trauma is left untreated it will keep you stuck in your old patterns of survival and shaping your life the way you want to will seem impossible and you will unconsciously be drawn to another toxic relationship. Not treating relationship PTSD can also lead you into similar toxic dynamics and continue old patterns.
Counseling for childhood trauma and Relationship PTSD?
One of the goals for trauma counseling is to help people learn how to regulate their emotions and stay grounded in their present moment.
Exposure to a trigger brings up the unprocessed fragmented parts of the traumatic experience in the form of physical experiences and emotions and takes you away from your present.
Even if your present is safe you will not be able to feel safe around a trigger because subconsciously it will take you back to the trauma and your body will respond to the trauma and not to your present.
For example, if your boss does not agree with your concept at work, instead of advocating for yourself, your self critic might show up and make you feel like you are not good enough and could lead you to thinking that you are in trouble.
People who have experienced trauma might not be able to identify their feelings. They might not know what their physical sensation means.
As a coping skill we cut off from our emotions to not feel the pain.
One of the steps in healing from trauma is re-learning the connection between our physical sensations and emotions and learning to recognize the feeling that is showing up in our body.
We have to get to know our body, not ignore its messages and not be scared of the physical sensations to be able to emotionally regulate ourselves.
Bessel Van Der Kolk in his book, the body keeps the score says that, “ Knowing what we feel is the first step to knowing why we feel that.”
The more information you have about your feelings and needs the more you will be able to guide yourself.
Then is recognizing that you have choices and that you are not helpless. That you have a say in your life, you have control over things that are happening in your life. You don’t just have to accept what’s given to you.
Learning to recognize and establish your boundaries. Working toward feeling safe in being vulnerable.
Coming to a place of implementing the idea that you and your needs are important and it’s safe to advocate for your needs.
Trauma keeps us stuck in the past moments. The goal in trauma counseling is to connect your past with your present and help you connect with the safety you have in your current life.
I have an eclectic approach to trauma counseling. Mindfulness is used to help you get in touch with your feelings. Learn to recognize your physical sensations and be able to use feeling words to name the feelings your body might be holding.
Lots of grounding techniques are taught to regulate your emotions. Inner child work from IFS and Robin Shapiro’s ego state work is used to help identify protectors, inner wounded child parts and adult parts.
Time is spent on building the adult parts as a resource for emotional regulation. Inner child work is done to help heal the inner wounded child parts. Jim Knipe’s EMDR technique is used to work with protectors and when it feels like the client is ready and would be able to stay in their window of tolerance while doing EMDR, then it is used to work through difficult memories.
If this resonates with you and you are ready to start your healing journey then drop me a line. I would be happy to set up a free phone consultation to see if we are a good fit.
Check out the articles below to learn more about how early childhood trauma can affect your current relationship
Why do I keep going back to a toxic relationship?
How does one become a people pleaser?
Effect of childhood emotional neglect on adults
You don’t have to carry the pain forever