15 Steps Adults Need to Take to Recover from Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma is more common than we’d like to admit. There are many instances that may result in childhood trauma, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse,… Simi - June 8, 2018

Childhood trauma is more common than we’d like to admit. There are many instances that may result in childhood trauma, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, and life in a conflict zone to name a few. Because they are individuals, children deal with trauma differently. Some speak immediately, but others have a fear of speaking out, so they suppress it. For many, they only begin the process of recovering from childhood trauma once they are grown-ups.

A lot of adults seeking to recover from childhood trauma did not trust the adults around them when the incidents occurred, or they felt the adults were as powerless as they were and so they did not speak up. Many manage to erase the incidents from their conscious awareness. But this seldom lasts forever, and so as grown-ups they must face their trauma and begin the process of recovering from it.

Childhood trauma can be a very isolating experience. Adults recovering from trauma often express surprise when they find out that they were not the only ones who experienced it. This is very common when it comes to sexual abuse.

Abusers tell children that it’s a secret and not to speak about it, and this makes children feel that no one else is experiencing it and no one else will understand what they’re feeling. So, it sometimes takes years, if not decades, before they feel safe to report the abuse they experienced. Here are some steps to follow for those adults seeking to recover from the childhood trauma they experienced.

1. Find your roots

This is an introspective process which requires much honesty and will expose you to reliving the events that have caused you pain. This may sound like a bad idea, but confronting trauma is the only way to fully deal with it. It should have started immediately after the trauma. But, for a variety of reasons, you were unable to do so at the time. But it is not too late. It will be hard, but it can be done. Before you start, prepare your body and mind for what is to come. Understand that things may need to get worse before they get better. You need to be in a relaxed state, physically, emotionally and mentally.

Take a walk around your home and identify a room that you feel comfortable and safe in. It could be your bedroom which is like a sanctuary from the rest of the world. It could be your living room, in the comfortable, secure depths of your favorite sofa. Make sure that the place you use is quiet and free from distractions.

Think about how you want to position your body. You might feel comfortable sitting, lying down or curling up. If necessary, try them all to decide. Make sure you are dressed in non-restrictive clothing. If your clothing is making you feel uncomfortable, you won’t be able to put 100% focus on the process.

Prepare your mind and body by taking up your comfortable position in your chosen room. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Take the time to flex and feel the muscles in your body. Empty your mind of all thoughts that are irrelevant to this process, and you are ready for the next step.

2. Go back in time

Take a trip back to a time in your childhood when you experienced trauma. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? In fact, this can be a difficult process, and it may take you a few tries to get it right. That is why experts recommend that you experiment with this process by first focusing on recent events that have upset you. If you can transport yourself back in time to these events, you will be able to build up the confidence to go back to the events of your childhood that caused the trauma.

Once you can ‘time travel’ back to an incident (whether recent or the childhood trauma itself), you need to immerse yourself in the events that occurred on that day. Make it a full sensory experience. There will sounds, scents, and tastes that you remember which will come to the fore while you are immersing yourself in the event.

Try to remember as many details from the event as you can. The smallest detail could be the key to your healing, so don’t disregard anything. Keep a journal handy so that after a session you can write down everything you have remembered. Your memories of one event may vary when you recall it multiple times. Record what you have remembered each time. The actual events will untangle themselves from your memory as time goes on.

Don’t be discouraged if you feel that you’re not making progress. The minute you feel that you aren’t concentrating, or you can’t recall something that you feel is important, don’t punish yourself by trying to carry on at that moment. Take a break. Reorganize your thinking, calm yourself, and try again.

3. Explore your senses

Whilst immersed in the memories of a particular experience, your senses will be on high alert. You may smell something familiar, like your mother’s cooking. You may hear something familiar, like a sibling’s voice. You may picture something, like a holiday at the beach. You may taste something familiar, like ice cream. If only all the senses you will experience while immersing yourself in a traumatic experience would be so pleasant.

Unfortunately, you are going to hear sounds that upset you, like gunshots. You will taste fear in your mouth. You will see images of the event that has traumatized you. You will smell odors associated with fear, pain, and helplessness. It is quite normal to be afraid of the prospect of ‘going back there.’ Remember that your feelings are valid, and you have to go through them to recover.

When you feel unpleasant emotions or sensory memories upset you, take the time to breathe in and out and relax. Examine your body and how it is responding. Have you broken into a sweat? Do you feel pain somewhere in your body? Are areas of your body tensed? Do you feel nauseous? Do you feel like crying, or are you already crying?

Take note of the physical reactions you have when you go back in time to recall the traumatic event. Record them in your journal. You might find that when you revisit the experience multiple times, you will either have the exact same reaction each time, or your reaction may vary. Over time, your reactions may become less severe. This is your body beginning to master its response to the trauma, allowing you to continue with the process of dealing with it.

4. Give it a name

Think carefully about your body’s responses and what emotions they indicate. People usually associate feelings of fear and pain with childhood trauma. But there are a great many other emotions that you could have experienced. For example, you felt helpless watching your father physically abuse your mother. You felt angry when no one listened to you when you tried to tell them you were being sexually abused.

In order to identify your own emotional responses to your experiences, understand what your emotions are. Know what each emotion means so that you label yours accurately. It is natural that you will have felt a myriad of emotions. You need to catalog them all and acknowledge them all. Try to capture every emotional nuance of your experience so that you can process and deal with all the emotions you went through.

Your journal is vitally important at this stage. Write down each emotion as you feel it or as you recall it. Write down statements such as ‘I felt angry when my feelings were dismissed after my dad died, I felt hopeless when I realized that no matter what I did my uncle would continue to touch me, I felt frightened when I heard the gunshots that killed my mother, or I felt hurt when I was bullied at school.’

Writing statements such as these give a constructive label to your emotions and the events that gave rise to them. As you think about and mull over the events that traumatized you, you will surprise yourself by expressing emotions you hadn’t allowed yourself to feel at the time. Trauma can take away your ability to feel anything but numb, so when you process it, a lot of emotions may be unlocked.

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5. Make peace with what you felt

Now that you have identified all the emotions you felt during a traumatic experience, it’s time to accept them. This may prove difficult for you, especially if you have never acknowledged them in the past. But remember that without acknowledgment, you cannot effect change in yourself. It might seem easier to lock those emotions away but doing that will harm you even more over the long term.

It might take feeling all those emotions again and express them through tears and anger. But whatever happens, when you get the opportunity to feel your feelings on your own terms you can start to feel a sense of inner peace and acceptance.

Part of a mindful response to childhood trauma is finding peace in what happened to you and the emotions it caused you, which will allow you to forge a path to acceptance and forward movement. Take the list of emotions you wrote down in your journal when you were working through your memories of the experience that traumatized you. Examine each and every one of them, making sure you understand it and why you felt it. Accept how you felt.

Understand that your feelings were valid and that as an individual you had the right to feel what you did. Do not doubt your feelings because others who were there experienced different emotions to you. If your brother felt angry when you both experienced domestic violence but you felt helpless, your feelings are no less credible than your brother’s. We are all wired differently and so our responses and emotions in situations vary. Don’t invalidate your feelings based on the feelings of others.

6. Go through your feelings

As discussed earlier, many children go through a range of emotions that they never express after a trauma. They feel numbed by what has happened, or afraid to talk about what they have experienced, or they cannot find the words to express what has happened and how they feel. The reason that childhood trauma often follows people into adulthood is the fact that these emotions were never expressed and addressed.

Whilst waiting to express the emotions you felt during a childhood trauma as an adult is not ideal, it is not uncommon, and it is not an irretrievable situation. Now is your opportunity to summon the strength to feel your range of emotions and express them. This is a cathartic experience for many.

Experts suggest that when you reach this stage that you express these emotions as you would have at the time, you were traumatized. Do not feel ashamed if you cry. It is a normal childhood reaction to a bad situation or experience. If you feel angry, find a way to express it such as hitting a punchbag, screaming into a pillow, etc. Don’t indulge in self-harm or destructive behavior during this stage. You will not feel better if you punch a hole in the wall, you’ll feel guilty about it.

A process such as this can be exhausting on so many levels, especially once you release the floodgate and express all your repressed feelings. Do it in a safe environment where you feel secure and where you have some privacy. The last thing you want to do is worry about someone walking in on you and having to explain what you’re doing.

7. Learn from what you felt

It is unlikely that all your unexpressed emotions from your childhood are related to a single experience. It is more probable that there was a string of events that occurred. Each event may have triggered the same emotional response or a different one. As individuals, there is no predictor of the emotions you may feel in reaction to an event.

Use your journal to study the pattern of your emotions. This might be a good time to make sure you’ve cast yourself back in time to all the events you believe may be preventing you from moving forward. If new ones occur to you, go through the process of re-experiencing them, and write down the emotions they brought up for you. Look at common emotions and emotions that occurred rarely.

For example, you might find that anger is a common emotion for you and that you have felt it on more than one occasion during a traumatic event. Similarly, you might find that helplessness is not something you have often felt during the traumatic events that have shaped you. Look at your life today, and see if these emotions still occur in the same pattern. Do you get angry frequently?

As a way of moving forward past what you have felt, ask yourself what message each emotion is trying to give you. What does an angry response tell you? Perhaps it tells you that you don’t deal with your frustrations and emotions until they’ve built up to boiling point. What does the helplessness and fear you felt tell you? It possibly tells you that you know you cannot control everything that goes on around you and that scares you.

8. Open up and share your feelings

Now that you have had the time to identify, name, acknowledge, and express your feelings, you will find yourself amenable to sharing your feelings with a trusted confidante. It might be possible for you to share your journey of emotional self-discovery with someone who was there during the time you experienced the trauma. You may feel more comfortable speaking to your partner or a friend who may or may not even have known about the trauma you experienced.

In sharing with other people, it will be necessary to explain the circumstances of the trauma and everything that happened so that they can understand. But don’t stop there, and don’t dwell on the events alone. Go further into the matter by discussing the emotions you felt at the time and how you reacted. Speak about the impact the event has had on you as an individual. Describe the process you have undergone to work through what you feel.

Sharing something like this with someone who truly cares about you can be liberating. It can also open your eyes to new perspectives and give you insights you might not have had before. Maybe it can even open the door for the other person to take strength from you and begin to address a trauma they experienced. It would make the painful process you’ve worked through even more rewarding if you knew it was going to help someone else.

You also need to share your feelings with the people who were there and who you feel failed you in that situation. You have been hurt, and you have the right to express that to those who hurt you. However, it may be better for you, in the long run, to write that person a letter about your feelings but keep it instead of sending it. Opening up to people who have hurt you can give them power over you again, which you obviously want to avoid.

9. Release your feelings

The feelings you have now had the chance to work through and express have taken their toll on you in the years between the trauma and now. Suppressing and repressing feelings causes stress which can damage the body physically.

Now it’s time to start to let those emotions go. It’s time to free your mind and body from the toxic stress caused by your unaddressed emotions. They are preventing you from moving forward in life and achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself. But don’t be fooled by how simple it sounds. There is a difference between acceptance and letting go. When we accept something, we acknowledge that it happened, and we decide to go on in spite of it. Letting go is about leaving what happened behind and no longer allowing it to dictate your future. This is a process that might take you some time.

You might feel that you’ve let something go only to find it has remained in your life’s baggage. Be kind to yourself and don’t have unrealistic expectations. It might take more than one attempt to let something go, and that’s okay. Make it a conscious event, by ceremonially burning the letter you wrote to the person who hurt you or thinking about the option of releasing petals which represent your hurt and trauma into a river or the sea to be borne away from you.

Once you have truly released your emotions about the trauma you have experienced, you will feel as if a weight has been lifted from your shoulders. The burden you have carried alone and in silence will no longer be your master. This gives you the chance to look forward with nothing holding you back and move into your future with a renewed sense of confidence.

10. Reclaim your sense of self

On the path to dealing with the emotions you experienced during childhood trauma, you will have begun to unlock your sense of self. Being able to identify the feelings you felt, understand them, acknowledge them, and let them go gives you an opportunity to surrender their control over you. When you release your feelings, you become unburdened by them. This will give you control over yourself and your destiny.

Your true self, now unfettered by all those negative emotions from childhood trauma, will have a different perspective on life. Your goals and ambitions may change due to your new emotional perspective. You may find yourself able to enter new relationships with a degree of closeness you never imagined possible. Embrace these opportunities as rewards for the difficult process you have gone through.

Whatever you do, bear in mind that this is a rare chance for you to reinvent yourself and change your approach to your future. That can have life-changing consequences. For the first time, you will be looking far beyond what happened to you and examining what you plan to happen to you in the future. If you make the most of it, you can make what you have been through work for you.

Many people may not make immediate changes in their work or personal lives. They may instead choose to reclaim themselves by helping others. This is very satisfying to them as it gives them a way to ‘pay it forward’ and help someone else escape the shackles of childhood trauma. If this is an option that sounds attractive to you, find out what opportunities there are in your area for you to help others by supporting them through the process.

11. Take care of yourself

People who have gone through childhood trauma can experience physical as well as emotional symptoms, even if they were not bodily harmed during the trauma. The sense of fear and hopelessness can cause them so much stress that it can have an effect on the heart. Many report heart palpitations when they become aware of a trigger that makes them remember their trauma.

Childhood trauma can also affect brain development. During childhood, the brain is constantly developing as you acquire new skills. Studies have shown that the stress caused by childhood trauma can have a negative impact on your brain’s development, particularly in the areas that regulate your responses to stress. These are the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.

The body responds to stress with the brain instructing the release of hormones to help you cope. This is done through the HPA-axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal gland). The adrenal glands produce the hormones cortisol and adrenaline to help you cope with a stressful situation. This stress response pathway can be affected by an adverse childhood experience. One of the functions of the hormone cortisol is to protect the immune system.

If the adrenaline glands do not produce enough of this hormone or do not secrete enough, the immune system can be compromised, rendering you more susceptible to infection and illness. It is advisable that you have regular health check-ups to make sure that there are no long-lasting effects of your childhood trauma on your body over and above those resulting from injuries you may have sustained during the event. If there are, you should be aware of them so that you can employ the proper treatments to manage them.

12. Don’t get caught up in bad habits

Childhood trauma can make you susceptible to different coping mechanisms, not all of them healthy. Some habits are hard to break because they are addictive, which means you’ll have to undergo a whole new process to quit them. Others, like the promiscuous behavior of a sexual abuse victim, could be easy to stop once the process of letting go is complete.

Quite often, smoking is a habit that people who had a childhood trauma may pick up. The belief that smoking will make you feel better because it relieves stress is the reason so many people resort to it. However, over time, the sense of stress relief is no longer there, but stopping is difficult due to the addiction to nicotine and the fact that the habit of smoking has become part of your routine. Similarly, using drugs such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and speed may offer temporary relief from the emotions you feel, but in the long run, you need more and more to get the same relief.

Alcohol abuse is also prevalent in adults after childhood trauma. The long-term negative effects of alcohol on the body and brain are well-documented, but it continues to be a problem, as alcohol gives people an escape and some desperately sought solace when they are in emotional pain as a result of what happened to them as children.

Once you have gone through the process of addressing the emotions you felt during the trauma, and you are able to let them go, you may find yourself in a position to get out of these bad habits because your reasons for succumbing to them are no longer so dominant in your life. The courage and willpower to do so are now within your reach.

13. Get plenty of exercise

Exercise is a great way to take your mind off the events you have gone through. Or, it may offer you the chance to sort your emotions out in your mind. Either way, exercise is an important regimen throughout the process of dealing with the feelings caused by childhood trauma and beyond. Yoga, which combines exercise and mindfulness is often used as a tool during the process to help keep you focused on the task at hand but also provides a way to obtain and feel the serenity and inner peace.

Exercise gets the blood pumping and the heart rate up. An increased heart rate means that oxygen and nutrients are being pumped all around the body at a faster rate. This includes the brain. Exercise is well-known to improve memory which can be helpful during the stage of the process when you are trying to recall all the events and the emotions you felt as a child.

Furthermore, exercise is a great way to work through emotions. Feeling angry and working through it by using a punchbag is a productive way to express the feeling. Power exercises such as weightlifting give you the opportunity to gain complete control over your body through your brain. This is a great pre-cursor to gaining control over your emotions and how you express them.

Endurance exercises such as running, cycling, and swimming release endorphins and chemicals such as dopamine and norepinephrine from the brain into the body. This help to deal with the stress and anxiety your childhood trauma may bring upon you. They also help after you’ve had a session that has left you very emotional. Getting active afterward can help you to recover.

14. Sleep is a wonderful tool

Just as exercise is critical during and after the process of dealing with the emotions brought on by childhood trauma, so is sleep. Many people who went through childhood trauma report that they have difficulties sleeping. When the body is not getting enough sleep, the mind cannot do the necessary work to heal the harm that has been done. Having difficulty sleeping is an indication of unexpressed emotions that have not been addressed.

If you have trouble sleeping, try some natural remedies and methods before you turn to prescription drugs to make you sleep. Most are habit-forming and, in many instances unnecessary, as there are alternative options before you. Remedies as simple as warm milk and honey can make a difference. Lavender is well-known for its sleep-inducing properties. Lavender candles and bath products are great but using lavender essential oil together with a carrier oil (such as almond oil, olive oil, or coconut oil) and massaging the tense areas of your body can work wonders.

Some of the methods recommended for getting a good night’s sleep are taking a hot bath shortly before going to bed. Make sure that you have created a sleep-friendly environment in your bedroom. This includes ensuring the room is at the right temperature, that your bed is comfortable, that you are wearing non-restrictive sleepwear, and that the room is dark enough. These sound like simple things to do, but you’d be surprised how many people’s sleep space is not conducive to a good night’s rest.

Right throughout the process of dealing with the after-effects of your childhood trauma and beyond, a good night’s sleep is essential to maintaining a healthy mind which allows you to let your feelings go and move on to a successful future.

15. Seek help when it’s not working

If you’ve tried the steps in the process and looked after your health, but you feel it’s not working and nothing is getting better, it may be time to admit that you need the help of a professional to get you through it. Do not interpret this as a failure on your part, but rather a need for support.

When you see a professional, you will be able to discuss the events that occurred in your childhood. They will then guide you through the process of identifying, understanding, acknowledging, and expressing the emotions you felt and still feel. Sometimes, the trauma is so great that you cannot deal with it alone and having an impartial professional help you may be the only way you’re going to manage. Don’t be ashamed by consulting a professional and avoiding it. All you’re doing is making the effects of your childhood trauma worse and jeopardizing your chances of recovering from it.

If at any stage during the process, you feel the symptoms of depression engulfing you, consult a professional immediately. When depression is not dealt with, it worsens. A depressed person feels like they are at the bottom of a pit trying to climb out. The longer they postpone treatment, the deeper the pit will become and the harder it will be to climb out of it.

Symptoms of depression include but are not limited to feelings of helplessness, mood swings, insomnia, drastic changes in the appetite, a lack of interest in things that used to excite you and reduced libido. A professional will diagnose you and determine if you need antidepressant medication, therapy or a combination of both.