The Effects of Childhood Trauma on Women and How to Begin Healing
Childhood trauma is a negative reaction to a single or ongoing frightening or life-threatening experience. Many children are traumatized by abuse, neglect, accidents, violence, and other scary situations. When that trauma is not recognized or processed in a positive way, the negative impacts can last for decades. Women with unaddressed childhood trauma experience greater rates of mental and physical illnesses and struggle with other issues. To heal requires recognizing the trauma, relying on loved ones for support, and engaging in trauma-focused therapies.
Children are particularly vulnerable to trauma and are too often the victims of abuse, neglect, and other frightening or life-threatening experiences.
If you had bad experiences as a child, you may be feeling the repercussions of childhood trauma.
That past trauma, if not addressed and processed in a healthy way, can lead to physical and mental health problems, low self-esteem, poor relationships, and a host of other lifelong issues.
The good news is that it’s never too late to face your past. With support from loved ones, caring professionals in a treatment facility, and evidence-based therapy, you can heal.
What Constitutes Childhood Trauma?
As a woman struggling with mental health issues, you may wonder if your challenges are rooted in something from childhood. Trauma experienced during childhood does have a big impact on wellness, including physical and mental health, well into adulthood. To better understand your own experience, it helps to know how trauma is defined.
Trauma is not actually an event but an emotional response. Any troubling or frightening situation can potentially be traumatic, especially for a child. One event, or repeated events, can cause shock, denial, rapid changes in emotion, fear, flashbacks and painful memories, relationship difficulties, and physical symptoms like pain. An immediate response with these kinds of symptoms is normal, but trauma occurs when the adverse emotional and behavioral reactions persist.
Children are especially vulnerable to trauma, and it is more common in this population than many people realize. In 2015, the rate of abuse and neglect in children was 9.2 per 1,000. Girls are more often sexually victimized than boys.
Abuse and neglect by caregivers are common reasons for trauma in children, but there are many other situations, some single events and others repeated, that can trigger a traumatic reaction:
- Witnessing violence, including domestic abuse or community or school violence
- Sexual assault or repeated sexual abuse
- A natural disaster such as a tornado or hurricane
- A serious accident
- A sudden death of someone close, like a parent or sibling
- Experiences of refugees or during war
- Deployment of a military parent
- Having a parent dealing with mental illness or the repercussions of their own trauma
- A life-threatening or chronic illness
The Ripple Effect: How Childhood Trauma Impacts Adult Women
The research on childhood trauma is very clear. Early traumatic experiences impact women well into adulthood, middle age, and beyond. The effects are varied and reach into all areas of a person’s life, including mental and physical health, behaviors, and relationships.
- The experience of childhood trauma contributes to a number of health complications and is associated with a shorter average lifespan, by 20 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Women who experienced trauma are more likely to have a child at a younger age and outside of a marriage, both factors that contribute to poorer later health.
- Another reason that the risk of health problems is higher in women with past trauma is that they are more likely to engage in dangerous and risky behaviors. These include things like sexual promiscuity, smoking, drinking, and drug use.
- Relationships are often more difficult for these women too. One study found that among thousands of childhood abuse survivors, there were higher than average rates of failed relationships and divorces.
- Relational trauma, repeated traumatic experiences at the hand of an adult caregiver, is particularly damaging to relationship development. Children who experienced this kind of trauma have a hard time trusting others but also may be overly needy in relationships. They may attach to abusive partners later in life.
- Mental health issues are also more likely in this population. Abuse and trauma survivors have higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, trauma disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), low self-esteem, addictive behaviors such as compulsive gambling or shopping, and suicide.
Healing Begins With Recognition of Trauma
Trauma is a terrible thing that impacts so much of your life if you experienced it. But there is always hope. No matter how long it’s been, you can heal from trauma, find peace, and correct many of the damaging repercussions it has caused in your adult life.
To begin the process of healing requires a difficult first step: recognizing and putting a name to the trauma you experienced. Even if you aren’t sure that what you went through as a child is considered trauma, talk to a mental health professional about your past. A therapist experienced in trauma can help you remember those experiences, define them, and recognize them for what they were. From there, the real and often long work of healing can begin.
Support Is Essential for Healing
That first step of admitting that you experienced childhood trauma is difficult and so is the long journey of processing and healing from it. All of this is easier and will be more successful if you have positive and loving support. Let at least one person, but ideally a few, in on this journey. Talk to family members, your partner, or trusted friends about what you’re going through and how you plan to get treatment.
It’s not easy to understand how important support is to healing, but research backs it up. Studies show that a lack of social support is detrimental to healing from past traumas. Research has also shown that social support predicts better recovery from trauma disorders, like PTSD. Having loving, caring people there to provide a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, and just another person who knows what you’re experiencing is essential to timely healing and recovery.
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Treatments and Residential Care for Overcoming Childhood Trauma
The tentacles of trauma reach far and deep into a woman’s behaviors, mental health, and physical health. There is no quick fix. The best way to heal from trauma after recognizing it and gathering support is to enroll in a residential treatment facility with experts in trauma care. Residential treatment provides a safe environment and the opportunity to focus on healing for an extended period of time, from weeks to months, depending on the situation.
The strategies used to treat and manage childhood trauma in women are varied, but trauma-focused therapies are most important:
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is one of the most effective and common types of therapies used for all kinds of mental health issues. The focus is on recognizing negative patterns in your thoughts, behaviors, and feelings and taking active steps to change them. With a focus on trauma, a therapist will help you process past experiences and change your thinking and feelings related to them. By reframing the trauma, you learn to manage and reduce its negative consequences.
- Prolonged exposure therapy. In this kind of therapy you’ll be guided by a therapist to remember and walk through your past traumas. Although it can be stressful and scary initially, the experience helps reduce the negative associations with those memories and helps you process them more productively.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR involves remembering past traumas while engaging in repetitive physical activity, usually moving the eyes. Why this helps is not fully understood, but the movement seems to lessen the painful associations with traumatic memories.
- Creative therapies. Therapy that involves the creation or use of art, music, dance, or writing can help process trauma in a unique way. Creative endeavors can be healing. One type of creative therapy that may be particularly useful for trauma victims is writing the narrative of your life, placing the trauma in a greater context.
While it is possible to benefit from trauma-focused therapies on an outpatient basis, residential treatment offers so much more. Here you can take your time healing and benefit from supportive care, including creative therapies, recreation, group support and therapy, family therapy, medical care, and nutrition and exercise.
The lasting effects of childhood trauma can be devastating. If you are struggling because of past experiences, you are far from alone. Many women have unrecognized, unprocessed trauma in their pasts, but healing is possible. Face your past and let professionals experienced in trauma therapy help you learn to live well with what happened to you.
Helix Treatment Center’s innovative gender-specific mental health treatment program is designed to help women gain the life skills and strength needed to manage their symptoms and learn to better cope with the lingering effects of childhood trauma and other mental health disorders in a supportive environment that caters to their psychological, physiological, and emotional needs so they can create a life worth living. We offer a tranquil space to restore emotional and behavioral health and stability in a safe, comfortable environment at our six-bed residence nestled in the beautiful Mt. Helix region of San Diego.
Contact us to learn more about our program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.