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Why childhood traumas can affect us for the rest of our lives

Why childhood traumas can affect us for the rest of our lives

If someone suffers from a childhood trauma it will, unless they seek treatment, affect them to some degree for the rest of their life. It is behind many mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety and various addictions.

This is not just an addiction to alcohol or drugs, but certain behavioral addictions too. These are to such as exercise, shopping, gambling, sex, work and money.

One of the world’s leading addiction experts is physician and author Dr Gabor Maté. His mantra is: “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.” 

Maté, now aged 77, says everybody he has ever treated with an addiction in his long career had suffered terrible trauma, usually during their childhood. Their addiction was an attempt to cope with the overwhelming pain of what had happened by masking or numbing that pain.

Maté speaks about how addictive urges start in areas of our brain that control the ability to feel and receive love. Human babies are born far earlier in developmental terms than most other animals.

Consequently our brains are still growing tremendously when we are born. In fact a human brain doubles in size in the first year.

How our environment shapes us

How our environment shapes us

So it makes sense that the brain’s development will be influenced by its environment. There will be detrimental consequences, for instance, if a baby witnesses lots of trauma in their household.

This could be that they live in a house that resembles a war zone much more than the sanctuary it needs to be. Our brain circuits develop healthily if they are under the influence of a nurturing environment throughout early life.

But if the environment is belligerent and traumatic – in the way that many dysfunctional family homes are – the brain doesn’t develop as it should. This is believed by many mental health experts to contribute to various mental health conditions in later life.

As we grow up too, especially in the first eight to ten years of our life, we are being strongly shaped, taught how to navigate the world around us. You could say our brains are being programmed – but sometimes they are wired completely incorrectly.

The family blueprint

The family blueprint

This is not necessarily because the parents or caregivers are doing this consciously to be malicious. It is because all of us to an extent imitate our parents as we grow up.

People are handed what can be called a “family blueprint”. It shows various ways to respond to certain situations – and these have often been handed down to the newest generation in that family for generations.

So if on hearing something someone doesn’t like, getting angry or going into a sulk are ways that have been taught in a particular family for years – it’s more than likely this is how a child will grow up responding too. They will then take that into adulthood, frequently not realizing there are alternative ways to respond – despite much distress and the problems that following the family blueprint might be causing them.

Also there’s the fact that parents might adopt “coping mechanisms” for their own traumas, that are frequently from their own childhood. These are then, usually unknowingly, forced on to their children.

These ways of coping are not healthy, sometimes they are utterly dysfunctional and even abusive. In some form they have often been going on for generations.

Compressed torment of generations

It’s what Dr Maté describes as “the compressed torment of generations”. That’s what he says we are often witnessing and dealing with when somebody is an addict.

Addiction and other mental health problems can occur for other reasons, including a trauma happening in adult life. Trauma derives from a Greek word meaning “wound”, so it’s anything that leaves an internal wound.

Until this is looked at in treatment, that internal wound will usually get more painful as it festers. This is why mental health problems get progressively worse unless they are treated.

But a great deal if not the vast majority of mental health issues start in childhood. They are often the result of trauma and toxic shame that can be seen as a failure of love to some extent.

Healing the shame that binds you

Healing The Shame That Binds You

Toxic shame is when someone is carrying shame that does not belong to them. Most often it has been pushed on them by parents or another caregiver. It is, for instance, behind the fact that many abusers were previously abused themselves.

“If our primary caregivers are shame-based, they will act shameless and pass their toxic shame onto us,” explained counselor John Bradshaw, author of one of the world’s bestselling recovery books Healing The Shame That Binds You. “There is no way to teach self-value if one does not value oneself. Toxic shame is multigenerational.”

Some people will say or observe that one sibling seems worse affected by growing up, say, with an alcoholic mother, than the other sibling. This is because we are all different and some people are simply more sensitive than others.

Then there are others who think that because someone might not have been living with their parents for years or decades that they should just be able to get over whatever happened and get on with life. But it is absolutely not that simple.

Internal wounds

An internal wound is just like a terrible open wound on our skin. If it is not looked at and treated, it will most nearly always get worse, the infection spreading and so making it even more painful.

So trauma and toxic shame is like this. They are like having a wound that’s inside us or some poison. The passage of time alone doesn’t heal.

Thankfully there are proven antidotes. Treatment such as talking therapy has successfully helped a great many people.

Our professional Tikvah Lake team has great experience in treating people who are suffering from trauma and toxic shame as well as any co-occurring disorders. Get in touch today to speak about how we can help you or someone you love.

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David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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