How Past Emotional Trauma May Still Be Affecting Your Relationships

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What Is Psychological Trauma? How Being Traumatized In Childhood Affects Relationships

If you were psychologically traumatized as a kid, you might not realize just how much your history of childhood trauma is still affecting you. In fact, it could even be the reason you feel so hopeless about relationships as an adult.

The good news is once you better understand the psychological trauma you experienced in childhood, you'll be able to overcome it — so it stops affecting your love life and getting in the way of your future.

What is psychological trauma?

The basic definition of psychological trauma is "damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event [...], often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one's ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience."

I know it might sound crazy when I tell you that the keys to your healing could be hidden within something that feels so bad, but that's the truth.

It makes sense that if something from your past feels bad, your body’s going to forevermore avoid reliving it at all costs. However, in doing so, your body is likely preventing the good from happening, along with the bad — and this can impact your romantic relationships as an adult, too.

RELATED: 3 Ways Traumatic Childhood Events Really Hurt Your Adult Relationships

For example, what if Sally (at age three) was vying for Daddy’s attention, but Daddy was always drunk and elsewhere? She eventually concluded, “I’m unimportant.”This reasoning helped her young unconscious mind make sense of why her friends were getting attention from their dads, when she wasn’t.

Resourcefully, Sally’s little mind owned the problem: “I’m the bad one.” If it were her problem (not her Dad’s) then she might be able to do something to change it: “I’ll just have to be really good. I’ll have to become important for Daddy!”

But she tried, over and again. And when nothing changed, when Daddy’s drunken stupor consistently stammered instead, she concluded: “I’m unlovable.”

Even though today Sally’s grown-up mind realizes her Dad is an alcoholic and this is not a reflection of herself, deep inside, a part of her still believes the three-year-old’s story every time she feels a familiar desire to gain attention from a man. This familiarity sets old programs into gear.

And the result? Well, that’s familiar, too.

You may not relate to Sally’s story, but it’s possible your own problematic circumstances are likewise stuck somewhere in your traumatic past.

For instance, was there ever a time you feared for your safety or for your integrity?

Sally didn’t think so. It wasn’t until she became familiar with how emotional trauma works that she could reconcile with the tiny tot inside herself that depended on an alcoholic for her very survival.

It’s possible you have ghosts lurking wherever a threat you’ve experienced felt stronger than your coping resources could handle.

Perhaps you were too young or weak to fight back, or you felt abandoned with no recourse. You experienced great loss, severe illness, or a deeply trusted person turned on you.

Maybe you were the child who had to shoulder adult responsibilities, or your caregiver was often angry, unpredictable, or absent. Perhaps you felt perpetually teased, ridiculed, or abused. If ever your life paradigm did a 180-degree turn without you, it’s probable you suffered some trauma.

Trauma hits on all levels, minor to severe. But no matter what form, level, or severity your trauma was, your body responded with one instinctual intent — survival!

RELATED: If You Had Something Terrible Happen To You As A Kid, Here Are 4 Ways It Changed You In A Big Way

And like it or not, because mammals are so good at locking in whatever survival strategy worked back then, it’s likely your brain keeps retrieving a new version of the same “ol’ successful” strategy in an effort to retain the feelings of safety it once fought so hard to reclaim.

You probably don’t even know when this happens. Even though your situation has changed, and you’ve grown more sophisticated, the part of your body who fought the trauma and kept you afloat doesn’t know that.

Now, if any of your five senses get startled by a taste, touch, sight, sound, or smell that’s remotely reminiscent of past trauma, your body unconsciously relaunches its survival mode to overcome a perceived threat.

At that point, your emotions get hijacked by the body’s fight or flight system and you’re coerced into a response that feels extremely necessary — regardless of whether its reasonable or whether the response truly fits the situation — sending you down a familiar rabbit-hole.

There’s good news though! Once you realize how trauma from your past can affect your relationships today, you can begin dismantling outdated brain circuitry and make room for new internal wiring that’ll surge more efficiently toward a wholesome outcome in your relationships.

It’s true that relationships are never one-sided. But rather than feeling like a hopeless victim of another’s behavior or circumstances, this new knowledge puts you in the driver’s seat.

Your brain is re-trainable. The effects of your past can be changed, and your future is in your hands.

Simply knowing this, is a start.

Next, you need to separate out situations that really are a threat from those that just feel like a threat. If there’s true danger, run for help.

However, whenever you notice that your emotional response to another person or situation feels bigger than the circumstances really demand, that’s usually a clue you might be responding with outdated brain circuitry.

If you sense this is happening and wonder if your brain is responding from old survival programs, try not to get frustrated or angry with this process (though it’s natural to do this).

Instead, befriend the old survival process, like you would a trusted friend. Because any outdated brain circuitry reacting from past trauma is not your enemy. In fact, it holds the very key you’ll need to begin changing your future.

Think about it: Without this old brain circuitry, you very probably wouldn’t be safely here today. It has kept you afloat — give it some thanks! Then let it know you’ll look into downloading some newer software so that it doesn’t need to work so hard (and ineffectively) using these outdated programs.

Many therapists who specialize in types of trauma treatment can help you do this. Most trauma specialists know how to help you access and re-activate your brain’s operating system.

They’ll help you get acquainted with the parts of you that seem to have a mind of their own. Beyond talk therapy, they’ll integrate healing modalities that access inner communication that’s deeper than words. And mostly they’ll help you come to terms with the fact that since you’ve overcome trauma, you’re a survivor.

Within you is a drive to thrive. And that means once you re-wire brain circuitry triggered by old trauma, your relationships can thrive, too.

RELATED: 4 Subtle Ways Childhood Trauma Affects You As An Adult (Even If You Think You're Over It)

JoDee Liebman is a licensed clinical social worker/psychotherapist who helps clients overcome past traumas so they can achieve their goals and learn to trust their internal wisdom.