Talking about trauma is not an easy task. As an adult, looking back on the hardships you have faced in your life can be a terrifying experience, to say the least.
Some researchers believe that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may be linked to adverse experiences faced during childhood. And while trauma can be experienced at any point in a person’s life, it can be especially difficult to go through as a child.
Childhood trauma can leave lasting physical and psychological impacts if left untreated. If a child was exposed to a traumatic environment consistently and for an extended period of time – watching one parent abuse the other, for example — that child’s stress response is constantly elevated to unhealthy levels.
Good stress can push us to be our best selves as we challenge our own mental and physical limits. When we are supported by family and friends in a loving and safe home, we can thrive. But when we are not supported or are put in harm’s way for a prolonged period of time, we can develop toxic stress.
Toxic stress is particularly insidious because of the way that it can lead to detrimental physical and mental struggles as we get older. The longer a child holds toxic stress in their body, the worse it can be for the person when they become an adult. It’s impossible to go back in time to reduce a child’s exposure to prolonged traumatic experiences, but we can help adults who have been victims of childhood trauma.
If you experienced childhood trauma and toxic stress, there are ways that you can help yourself recover and move on.
What counts as childhood trauma?
The word trauma is frequently thrown around in normal conversation these days, so much so that its meaning can be muddy. Some people may confuse trauma and hard experiences, which, while easy to do, should be avoided.
If you’re unclear about whether or not you suffered from trauma, a good resource to check out is the ACEs quiz.
ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, seek to quantify the trauma that a person underwent during their childhood. ACEs can’t measure all types of trauma, but it does look at the most common sources of trauma for children. These include (among many) abuse, divorce of one’s parents, and loss of an immediate family number.
The ACEs quiz helps you identify what is constituted as childhood trauma so that you can begin the steps to learn to heal.
Identifying trauma is important, and if you don’t have immediate access to a licensed professional such as a therapist who can help you identify traumatic experiences, the ACEs quiz might shed some light on your past.
It’s important to keep in mind that the trauma listed under Adverse Childhood Experiences is not an exhaustive list. Trauma wears many faces. You might be familiar with more than one, or recognize none.
But a general rule of thumb is that the higher you score on the ACEs quiz, the more at risk you are for developing detrimental physical and mental risks that arise from the aforementioned toxic stress.
It may sound intimidating or scary, but when you can look your trauma in the eye, you can take the steps to learn to heal.
I know my ACEs. Now what?
Beginning the journey to address your childhood trauma is no small feat. There are hundreds of options ahead of you that could offer you relief. So how do you know which one to choose?
The cop-out answer is that there is no right way to address childhood trauma.
Most doctors will recommend exploring your options with therapy. With the wide variety of choices to explore, you might find that therapy is the right option for you.
But therapy is expensive, and providers are often booked up months in advance, which can be frustrating and isolating when you’ve decided to reach out for help.
If therapy isn’t an option for you, there are other ways you can address your childhood trauma.
Look for support from your state health department
Many state health departments provide residents with options for where they can receive low-cost care and support. These programs will frequently be listed under public health tabs, in the subsection of chronic disease and prevention.
Some states will even provide links to places where one can get immediate help. The state of Alaska, for example, has a link on its department of health website where users can find free programs for better health.
State-sponsored programs like the ones offered by the state of Alaska typically look at conditions such as diabetes, but they may also address problems like substance misuse, which is often connected to high levels of toxic stress.
If nothing else, your state department of health can connect you with medical experts in your state who have the resources available to help you find the care you need. It might be a pain to sift through dozens of pages of medical care options on decades-old websites, but it’s worth it.
Work on building connections
A strong support system is a foundational element of healing from childhood trauma. Take a moment to think about the relationships you have in your life. Which feels fulfilling to you?
Whichever relationships those are should be the ones you prioritize.
You might have a wealth of wonderful relationships or struggle to find that one person who gets you. Regardless of your social situation, working to build stronger relationships can help you move on from your trauma. Support systems are important no matter your experience with childhood trauma, and you should always make sure to put them first.
Let yourself take a few steps back if needed
Dealing with childhood trauma is not an easy task. It requires lots of emotional heavy lifting, which, let’s face it, we’re not always equipped to do.
If you find yourself feeling overly burdened by the prospect of handling your childhood trauma, don’t be afraid to step back. While processing your childhood experiences can be frightening, it should eventually lead to you feeling happier and healthier.
However, that healing can take a long time. And if you’re feeling weighed down by the healing process, it’s okay to take a step back and regroup. Finding what’s right for you takes time, and the first go of it might not work perfectly.
It’s okay to feel tired, and even more okay to treat yourself with kindness during the process.
Don’t forget about doing things that are good for the soul
It can be easy to overlook having fun when you’re trying to sort through your childhood trauma. But, please, please, do your best not to.
Returning to your childhood may be a dark place, and it’s important to continue to do what you love in the present so you don’t get consumed by the troubles of your past.
Try your best to make time to read, exercise, or crochet — whatever makes you happy is what you should make time to do. If you need more convincing than that, doing what you love also can help relieve stress, which, if you’re looking to ease some of the toxic stress you may carry, is a great way to do that.
And focusing on spending time doing what you love doesn’t have to be too time-consuming either. Doing fifteen minutes of something you love is better than not doing it at all.
Find ways to express your feelings
Activities that help alleviate stress are always a good idea, but especially so if you deal with toxic stress as a result of childhood trauma. And these activities are extra great if they help you express and better understand your feelings.
You might be tired of hearing about the wonderful benefits of journaling. People suggest it because it works; journaling not only relieves stress, but it also allows you to put your feelings to paper so that you can better understand your emotions.
If journaling truly isn’t your thing, there are lots of other ways that you can express your feelings. Maybe give songwriting a go. Or finally open that art kit you got as a present years ago.
Creativity can show us parts of ourselves that we would never otherwise notice or understand. And making the space to express your feelings will leave you with so much more than just words on a page.
Working through childhood trauma takes time and effort. But to heal from it as an adult is achievable, and with a little persistence, can be done by anyone. Your childhood may have been hard, but the rest of your life doesn’t have to be.