Childhood Trauma and the Mind-Body Connection for Adults

A woman stands in woods, looking at a camera. Trauma survivors often hear, “Forget about it. Move on. It was in the past.” But this is not necessarily accurate. Until they resolve past traumatic experiences, trauma survivors are unable to move on. When trauma survivors find themselves unable to move past the past they might consider seeking the help of a licensed therapist. It is not unusual for those with past traumatic experiences to struggle with emotional difficulties, mental disorders, or physical health concerns and diagnoses.

Many of those who have survived trauma as children struggle as adults with depression, PTSD and other anxiety disorders, relationship difficulties, angry outbursts, alcohol and drug abuse, etc. Trauma survivors can experience physiological changes, too. Sometimes these individuals develop the onset of an illness. Other times their condition worsens for no apparent reason. These conditions are sometimes psychosomatic. This is a condition in which a person feels as if they are told, “It’s all in your head,” “You’re making it up,” or “You’re crazy.”

This is inaccurate. These are real conditions, though a person feels they are crazy, which may have a psychological basis to them. (I hear this frequently from people who have had traumatic pasts.) Psychosomatic means only that it’s a physical disorder caused by or greatly impacted by emotional factors. In other words, there’s a mind-body connection. Never assume any illness or painful condition has a psychological component or cause; always have a medical doctor check before making this assumption.

Survivors of childhood trauma often show some (though not all) of the following symptoms:

Physical

  • lack of eye contact
  • altered pattern of speech
  • exhaustion that may be chronic adrenal fatigue
  • anxiety (including panic attacks)
  • shallow breathing
  • chronic back pain
  • hypervigilance
  • feeling frozen or an inability to sit still
  • having body numbness or feeling as if you are somewhere else
  • having poor physical health, fainting, or dizziness
  • dry mouth

 

Emotional

  • finding yourself in the same types of stressful, traumatic, or abusive relationships
  • startling easily
  • struggling to trust others
  • making friends easily, but fearing they won’t like you
  • becoming a chameleon
  • exerting or avoiding control
  • a dependency on others
  • fear of trying new things on your own
  • powerlessness
  • hopelessness and helplessness about your life
  • fear of rejection
  • trying hard not to cry for fear that you can’t stop
  • feeling inadequate
  • not living your dreams for fear of failure

Many of these physical symptoms can be indicative of a variety of physical illnesses. Sometimes physical illnesses can cause one to function poorly on an emotional level as well. But when physician after physician says there is nothing wrong, don’t give up. Help may be available, especially if you are aware of abuse in your past.

A word of caution. Sometimes people don’t remember past abuse. The reason for this may be either that the child blocked the emotional and physical pain, or they may not have recognized it as abuse, assuming all families lived the same way. So when you are repeatedly told nothing is wrong by your doctor, you owe it to yourself to check with a licensed therapist to see if more might be going on behind the scenes.

© Copyright 2010 by Joyce Thompson. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • EMMETT

    EMMETT

    February 17th, 2010 at 9:37 AM

    They say time is the best healer and that it heals all wounds…it is a bit over-rated if you ask me…and I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who would agree with me. Just time passing by will not help…yes, the wound may become old but any reflecting back on it feels like it is fresh again :(

  • Barb h

    Barb h

    February 17th, 2010 at 10:36 AM

    You can’t just put the past behind you when it haunts you every day. The people who say things like this have obviously never had to deal with a traumatic event in their lives or if they have they have chosen to bury it instead of deal with it in an honest way.

  • dcarter

    dcarter

    November 4th, 2012 at 9:04 PM

    readin this and broke into tears half way through the article, because i could relate to every single thing. i grew up with a very abusive mother which i know she has damaged me both emotionally and physically. growing up seems like i’m goin backwards, i’m 25 but yet still i act as if i’m 10. i try to pretend to be mature but i cant pretend for too long so i either stay by myself or keep socialising at a minimum sigh :(

  • Chadras c.

    Chadras c.

    September 15th, 2014 at 8:57 AM

    Omg! I’m 27 but I’m 4 on the inside. So weird to hear someone else feel like this

  • Pip

    Pip

    January 13th, 2013 at 7:54 AM

    I call this type of article the ‘chicken or egg’ scenario-play.
    Studies show that childhood abuse leads to a heightened HPA axis – which eventually becomes downregulated because it has become exhausted. One then experiences physical&emotional symptoms of anxiety, depression, body pain, tingling, twitches, lose/gain weight, sweating, no sweating, chest pain etc – afterall hormones are the very chemicals that ‘control’ who we are. Without these hormones flowing at the right levels at the right time – our personality changes.
    It is NOT ‘repressed trauma’ causing all these symptoms – it is the changes in the hormonal chemical pathways – PRIMARILY CAUSED BY THE ACTUAL trauma – creating an ‘imbalanced personality’.
    PTSD, PD, and all the other labels to pin on people who are not emotionally ‘normal’ will never be cured with just talk-therapy. I suggest all therapists absorb studies on the endocrine system linked with childhood trauma.
    The HPA axis dysregulation also occurs in adults who experience a one-off trauma – i.e car crash, death of a loved one – and they too go through the years of suffering that a HPA-axis imbalance causes.
    During this physical de-regulation of hormones, which eventually leads to adrenal collapse and hypothyroidism after being in a hyper-secreting state (That’s where the anxiety symptoms and depression, fear comes from – just the same symptoms in people WITHOUT prior Childhood trauma) we become worried and run to a therapist who tells us we have not dealt with our trauma hence the symptoms we experience. That’s inaccurate.
    Therapists need to realise that hormonal tests are needed and appropriate treatment sought before complete insufficiency occurs (secondary Addison’s disease) – as treating it as a psychosomatic illness only that needs to be talked-away is neglectful and abusive in itself.

  • Si

    Si

    April 16th, 2017 at 8:30 PM

    I see what you mean and agree to an extent. However I also believe that ‘talk therapy’ can recontextualise past abuse in such a way as to position the victim as not being responsible. This awareness can then lead to re-authoring the experience that is empowering for the victim. This can nurture or stimulate hormone functions towards a healthier state. Drugs achieve this too and are arguably necessary for some. Talk therapies alone can also be life changing

  • nat

    nat

    July 7th, 2017 at 11:01 AM

    Hi Pip, i’m intrigued by your comments relating to dysregulation of the HPA Axis, and would love to hear more about this if possible.
    Many thanks

  • Oliver J R Cooper

    Oliver J R Cooper

    June 7th, 2013 at 3:23 AM

    Hello,

    this is a great article and it covers childhood trauma very well.

    Thanks,

    Oliver

  • Sue

    Sue

    December 20th, 2015 at 11:12 AM

    I am quite shocked at how many senior women friends who have unresolved issues from childhood. They suffer a lot emotionally, have symptoms of many illnesses. They talk openly but even with great expectations of recovery they have melt downs a lot. My three close friends each of them can,t move on to a peaceful life.my other two friends like myself who had enjoyable childhoods can make changes when needed and have good family relationships, and don’t suffer from emotional stress. I have talked to them and we are ready to walk away from our unable to move on to a fulfilling life friends. Because it’s the same story,same blocks up. It is quite sad. My one friend of forty years when I visit her had years of therapy, but every day has an episode.
    How can they be really helped?

  • Anne

    Anne

    August 28th, 2016 at 3:58 AM

    Maybe you should reconsider before you “walk away” from your “close friends” as you are showing that you are NOT a loyal friend if you do this.
    You are fortunate to have had a happy childhood. Don’t saddle your less fortunate friends with another betrayal to deal with.
    If there is some specific problem (such as some aspect of their behaviour) have you considered discussing it with them rather than just dropping them?

  • JenniferD

    JenniferD

    November 9th, 2016 at 10:41 AM

    True help comes through healing. moriahfreedomministry.com , which offers prayer counseling, is one place that offers true, deep emotional healing.

  • Jim S.

    Jim S.

    April 19th, 2016 at 5:41 AM

    I would like to find out more about the HPA axis. Can someone point me to a lay article explaining what that is and how it affects behavior? Thanks.

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    September 6th, 2016 at 4:25 PM

    At forty years old I am remembering childhood sexual abuse although it was minor it has caused me pain in my life am I able to deal with this abuse and move on and have a normal life because so far nothing in my life has been normal

  • Anne

    Anne

    September 7th, 2016 at 2:22 AM

    Please don’t diminish your suffering by calling the abuse “minor” How can any abuse, especially sexual abuse, be called “minor”?
    You deserve to acknowledge that whatever you have been through has affected you, rather than dismissing it by using that term.

  • Pamela

    Pamela

    October 17th, 2016 at 2:56 PM

    I am not a therapist. However, I have studied the neurology of trauma and have worked with many clients who had been to therapists for years , or put on meds but with no resolution to the underlying causes of their symptoms. Nervous system dysregulation happens because of traumatic events. It’s different for everyone–how much and IF it even happens. No two traumatic events, like no two people, are the same. The dysregulation of the nervous system can be fixed in the way that the other mammals do it: pandiculation and neurogenic tremors. See my website for more information. SomaticRelease.net

  • Aimie

    Aimie

    April 20th, 2017 at 12:03 PM

    Joyce ~ I love the discussion on trauma and the physical and mental effects. What I have been fascinated with lately is discovering in my practice that most people -kids and adults – who have a harder time recovering from a trauma have underlying genetic and nutritional deficiencies that affect their nervous system and brain, preventing recovery and repair of the damage from trauma. Has this been your experience as well? Thank you for your work! ~ Dr. Aimie

  • Braden B

    Braden B

    May 9th, 2017 at 6:14 AM

    I didn’t know that emotional trauma in childhood could cause stress for someone all their life. It seems like it would be a good idea to get therapy if something from your childhood is bothering you.

  • carrrie

    carrrie

    September 8th, 2017 at 4:55 PM

    We are moulded during our early years so every experience will have an impact on who we become as an adult, so I guess it says something about how society just doesn’t speak of such things when you could genuinely think “how could child abuse not create problems later in life?”. I experienced massive trauma throughout my childhood, and without meaning to sound rude, it wasn’t ‘bothering me’ as an adult. It was terrorising me, attacking me, berating me, terrifying me. And yes therapy is definitely necessary, sadly due to stigma it takes most people 10 years to seek out treatment.

  • Beth

    Beth

    May 29th, 2017 at 8:46 PM

    This really hit home for me. I’m in therapy now and struggle greatly to see the past abuse as a big deal or connected to my current state. It’s hard. Very hard. I’ve started writing about it on my Eugene online marketing website (don’t worry, I have it so people have to login for that one lol) and it’s helped, but it’s hard.

  • Simon

    Simon

    July 13th, 2017 at 7:47 AM

    Hello
    I’m 32 years old
    Had not a good childhood mum left at age 3 my 2nd mum was killed at home by someone then they burned the house down cops arrested dad for it and put in gaol they let him go …. then they come back and charge him for the murder of my natural mum But that’s not all….. Can someone please help me

  • Linda

    Linda

    August 25th, 2017 at 11:34 AM

    @Simon. Please talk to someone such as a doctor, nurse, therapist, or clergy person who can put you in touch with a therapist who can help you through these traumatic life events. I hope and pray that you find the help you need. You do not have to do this alone.

  • Chip

    Chip

    August 23rd, 2017 at 6:27 AM

    I see many of these issues present in my life & have been repeatedly undiagnosed with ADHD. I believe this is the main contributing factor for my inability to love the life’s I want, & I know I am smart in many ways, but I seem to always make “dumb” mistakes (with good intentions).

  • Jeremy

    Jeremy

    November 19th, 2017 at 7:33 PM

    Hello. I’m a 43 yr old male. I guess my issues start from the age of 5, when I was playing with matches while my mother and brother were asleep. End result, my mother being out here by pitching us out a small bathroom window and she was recovered from inside by firemen. As she had grown up with leukemia this didn’t help. She died in a hospital far away and my father never really recovered from his loss. With some therapy and drugs I was allowed to return to school a year later but I had always had problems fitting in or being like everybody else it seemed. Got into drugs and crime as a teen and adult. Spent a collection of years in detention facilities. While incarcerated (every time) it just became a time of blood sports and hope for calm periods enough to allow for parole. I have issues settling in any given location and holding jobs for longer than a couple months to a year. Been married twice. Screwed those up. Am completely terrified to experience public places where the scrutiny of so many are everywhere! Eye contact has always been next to impossible without getting the twitches which I’ve had as a child too. I am sick of living this way and just want to function like an average person and gold a job as a career…

  • Ally

    Ally

    March 4th, 2018 at 6:35 PM

    I have definitely blocked a lot of what happened to me as a child. The impacts of my abuse and trauma have been excessive and far reaching. They’ve hindered my progression so profoundly. The healing is slow and the struggle is real. I’m so grateful for the increased awareness of this insidious condition, because awareness brings understanding and freedom.

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