Trigger warning: Mention of sexual abuse.
A woman in her mid-50s was looking to solve a very difficult problem as she went to consult a psychologist here in UAE. She had avoided forming relationships throughout her entire life.
“When she came to therapy, she didn’t really understand in the beginning that why is that happening to me,” says Nashwa Tantawy, a CDA (Community Development Authority) licensed professional psychologist and researcher at Dubai-based Openminds Psychiatry, Counselling and Neuroscience center. “She was aware that something wrong happened to her - it was some sort of sexual abuse by a caregiver, one of the family members, but she was not really aware of what happened because it was at an early age.
“I can tell you that it impacted her whole life and she couldn’t get into a functional relationship – she couldn’t be committed to anyone and she realised this at a very old age. And when she started to remember details, it was very hard for her to go through the healing process.”
Certain behaviours in our adulthood may stem from a hidden or suppressed past trauma – and if you find yourself repeating a negative pattern, it may be worth going back to the events of your childhood to identify the cause, answer that challenging question, ‘Why am I like this?’, and help yourself heal from the past.
From bullying to domestic violence
“Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s psychic system and threatens to fragment its mental cohesion, “says Dr George Kaliaden, psychologist of 25 years at WeCare Medical Center, Dubai.
In psychology, these have also been termed Adverse childhood experiences or Aces in a landmark 1998 study by Dr Vincent Felitti that surveyed almost 14,000 adults and found that not only had two-thirds of the sample experienced atleast one form, there was a relationship between the exposure to abuse or household dysfunction during childhood and risk factors for leading causes of adult deaths. Dr Kaliaden said, “In my practice, I see a number of children and teenagers who are traumatised by parental violence, sexual abuse by near relatives, and severe bullying in school.”
Tantawy and Dr Kaliaden explains the different types and causes of childhood trauma –
• Physical or sexual abuse to the child, or another person in his/her surroundings and the child is watching
• Natural disaster
• Loss of a loved one
• Domestic violence
• A traumatic medical condition that happens to another person that the child was witnessing, or is part of this event
• Vehicle accidents
• “If it's severe, and frequent, bullying can be considered as trauma as well,” says Tantawy. She recounts seeing very successful adults in her practice in their mid-40s or so who are still haunted by being bullied at a very young age, and suffering problems related to self-esteem as a result.
• A traumatic separation or divorce. “It depends on how it happened, whether the child felt abandonment or rejection – or if there was a dramatic incident of domestic violence,” says Tantawy.
• Complex trauma of children whose caregiver is an oppressor
The way we see ourselves, especially if the trauma has happened to us at a young age is a little bit hard and sometimes distorted. We cannot really define who we are, how to approach others ,how to see others, how to see relationships in general.
Two more factors Tantawy mentions that can cause a negative impact but may not strictly be classified as childhood trauma are -
• Traumatic incidents on social media – “So many people are exposed to seeing very traumatic incidents that are happening through social media – and sometimes it can lead to excessive watching of or being exposed to seeing these incidents happening,” says Tantawy.
• Transgenerational trauma – “This is not genetic but when parents – maybe one them has dealt with trauma and starts to talk so much or reflect on it… may cause an increase in anxiety, stressors, that may cause problems related to dealing with other people, how to trust the world, how to feel safe and secure in relationships,” says Tantawy.
How trauma can affect your adult relationships
Dr Kaliaden says, “Trauma is not merely an event that took place sometime in the past. It is a deep imprint left in one’s brain, mind and body by that unbearable event. These imprints have ongoing consequences for how the victim manages to survive in the present and tries to relate to others. Many traumatised individuals are at risk of developing personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attack or depressive conditions.”
Trauma is not merely an event that took place sometime in the past. It is a deep imprint left in one’s brain, mind and body by that unbearable event. These imprints have ongoing consequences for how the victim manages to survive in the present and tries to relate to others. Many traumatised individuals are at risk of developing personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attack or depressive conditions.
“In general traumatic events, they cause many physical and subconscious symptoms that reside and stay with the person throughout his life,” adds Tantawy.
These are some ways that childhood trauma manifests and remains decades later in your adult relationships –
1. Lack of self-esteem, feeling insecure or being a people pleaser
Being insecure, avoiding conflict at all costs may stem from childhood trauma in some cases.
Sexual abuse – According to Tantawy, in some situations of sexual abuse, the victim can feel that they need to compensate and put in extra effort to please the other person or maintain the relationshtired p due to shame, guilt and lack of self-esteem they are experiencing.
Domestic violence – Witnessing violence as a child at home can also affect your self-esteem and perceptions of behaviours you should avoid. Tantawy says, “For example, there is domestic violence against the mother at home and whatever the child is hearing at the time of why that is happening, whether she deserves this or not, can impact the person himself.”
2. A constantly heightened sensitivity to potential threat
On the other hand, being exposed to childhood trauma that caused a threat and feeling of insecurity can lead to ‘hyper-vigilance’ that extends into your adulthood. Tantawy says, “Your body will be always in hyper-vigilance, looking for some sort of trigger – and in many cases, the reaction is an overreaction. So, they can be quick tempered, in some cases, aggressive verbally or physically, they can show physical behaviour with little provocation.”
3. Sudden aggression and conflict
This leads to aggressive behaviour in relationships as well. Tantawy says, “If there is some sort of conflict, for example, a trigger happened to someone that is related to a trauma but is considered a minor trigger by another person – and you will see that one is dealing with this conflict in a very exaggerated way, from an aggression perspective.”
This also spills over into not knowing how to deal with or repair the repercussions of the conflict.
4. Fearing abandonment
A traumatic loss of a loved one at a young age, and even witnessing such a loss can lead to fears of neglect, and seeking extra comfort. “The after effects of this event is feeling of abandonment or feeling that he or she is alone or not cared for,” says Tantawy.
A 2004 study by Canadian researchers published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, the official journal of the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, also found that people reporting physical neglect had a higher prevalence of the need to be comforted, and that those subjects who had experienced significant separation felt less self-confident interpersonally.
5. Avoiding intimacy and being socially withdrawn
According to Dr Kaliaden, sexually abused people may experience difficulties in intimate relationships, especially if they have been abused by a trusted caregiver.
“High level of insecurity resulting from trauma make such individuals hypersensitive and somewhat paranoid in personal relations. I have treated cases of women who avoid sexual intimacy as it creates heightened anxiety or panic,” says Dr Kaliaden.
Tantawy adds that the person tends to be in an ongoing state of avoiding the stimuli from the traumatic experience because of how profoundly painful it had been. She says, “So sometimes, over time when the person grows up – they will be socially withdrawn as adults.”
6. Having an insecure attachment style in relationships
According to Tantawy, one of the main insecure attachment styles that is related to being exposed to trauma at a fairly young age is called a fearful-avoidant attachment style – having an unstable or fluctuating view of others.
She says, “The way we see ourselves, especially if the trauma has happened to us at a young age is a little bit hard and sometimes distorted. We cannot really define who we are, how to approach others ,how to see others, how to see relationships in general.
“The person can view themselves as unworthy of being in a relationship or having this kind of attachment with the other person. Sometimes they do not trust others, or their intentions, sometimes they are less comfortable in expressing their affection – they need to be connected but they are afraid of the after-effects of being connected or being disappointed, so they decide at that time that it’s easier for them to avoid this whole thing together or struggle with building trust.”
A 2010 study by US-based researchers published in the journal Personal Relationships studied 5,400 couples and found, “Individuals who were traumatised rated both themselves and their partners as more neurotic and conflictual, even when controlling for overall levels of relationship satisfaction.”
7. There is a risk for consecutive trauma
According to Tantawy, if you experience trauma at a very early age, there is a potential to have consecutive traumas though not necessarily with the same stimuli. She says, “Maybe there is either vulnerability due to the environment around you, because you are exposed to other traumas or your personality itself. For example, if you are abused at a certain point in time, you will be a very easy target for bullies at school – it can impact self-confidence.”
If you’ve found yourself relating to any of these points, here’s what you can do to help you heal and address your trauma as well.
The steps to healing
The first step is accepting, whether yourself or with your loved ones, that it will take time. “Healing is a process. It is not something that happens right away, or in a very short time, especially with traumas that were kept for a very long time throughout our life,” says Tantawy.
1. Try to stop suppressing your painful memories
Although the memory can seem too painful or dark to revisit, suppressing it will extend its adverse effects. “In many cases, especially with traumas that are unspoken about or shameful, people tend not to talk about it for a very long time, even to think about it, they are trying to suppress the memories as much as possible and avoid and move on,” says Tantawy.
“Such memories, they will not go anywhere, and the pain will not go anywhere, and it will still be there and impact your life.”
2. Talk about your problems in a safe space in a structured way
Tell your story to those you can trust completely to help yourself come to terms with it. “If you realise that there is something wrong that happened to you, whether you know the full details of it or don’t – start to talk about it… because there is a lot of emotional charge inside, “says Tantawy.
“We need to talk about it in order to move from a state of inability to deal with it and total misery to another state – which is, ‘this is painful, but it is something I can talk about’."
3. ‘Building a bank account of resilience’
“There are lots of things that increase our ability to really deal with hard times,” says Tantawy. She gives an example of a positive psychology exercise you can do, ‘Open door, closed door’: This is when you reflect on your past experiences to recall what happened to you after a bad or negative event – when a door closed in our face. “In what happened after, you will most probably find another door open – reflecting on what happened can help us build new positive coping strategies in the in dealing with such stressors in the future,” she adds.
4. Practising self-care
“If you are not in a good shape, physically and psychologically, you will not be able to work on yourself, you will not be strong enough to deal with the after effects of traumatic events,” says Tantawy.
So, these are some basic steps, and a handy acronym to help you remember them, as explained by Tantawy -
5. Following the PLEASE acronym trick
PL – Taking care of your physical state.
E – Eating healthy, nutritious food.
A – Avoidance of any drugs, alcohol or any type of thing that can impact you negatively.
S – “Having good, consistent sleep and building sleep hygiene helps a lot in our ability to focus, concentrate and tolerate stressors and triggers,” says Tantawy.
E - Exercising, for physical and mental health.
6. Seeing a therapist
“Whether we are aware or not makes a big difference, and the psychologist or therapist is really aware and can read the signs, and help the person to start the process of self-awareness,” says Tantawy.
“The focus of therapy in such cases is to bolster the courage to tolerate, face and process the reality of what has happened and encouraging them to reconnect with fellow human beings. In general trauma that has occurred in relationships is more difficult to treat than trauma resulting from traffic accidents or natural disasters,” says Dr Kaliaden.