4 Ways Childhood Trauma Haunts You As An Adult (& How To Move On)

Photo: getty
mirror image of short-haired woman

Understanding the effects of childhood trauma and abuse isn't easy, but it's worth exploring if you ever want to move on.

You grew up and did the best you could to let go and move on. But, you’ve also had a lot of struggles, especially with mental health and relationships.

You’ve suffered from anxiety. You don’t feel lovable. You haven’t been able to find love that works. You’re afraid of wanting too much. 

Maybe you have an eating disorder. You feel hopeless...a lot. You've been haunted by dark persistent episodes of depression.

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

When you least expect it (or want it), panic attacks take over. And letting go of the past feels impossible.

This is no way to live.

And, you’ve started to wonder: Could any of this be because of what happened so long ago?

Could you still be suffering from childhood trauma?

But, how? Why would your traumatic past still be bothering you? You should be over it by now, shouldn't you? 

No. These are common thoughts in adults who suffered some type of emotional trauma and haven’t had sufficient help — or any help, at all. Or worse, when help has failed them.

Anyone who has endured childhood trauma has tried very hard to learn how to let go and move on from the past.

You block out feelings and don’t think about what you went through. Sometimes you find yourself just going through the motions of life because what else is there to do?

There are 4 reasons why you still suffer from childhood trauma in adulthood and how you can let it all go)

1. You feel like you're "not really there."

Going through the motions in a detached way is what psychologists call dissociation.

It’s how anyone who’s had trauma (or repeated trauma) copes. Dissociation happens as a form of self-protection. During your trauma, you "went away."

You might describe it like this: "I was floating above myself... watching." As if you weren’t there. Mostly, you didn’t feel.

"Not being there" is a way to cut off feelings that are simply too much.

They’d be too much for anyone, but certainly for a child. This is how most traumatized children live through their original childhood trauma.

And, later, when memories, flashbacks, or terrifying feelings return, there’s no option but to cut them off again and tell yourself to forget (so fast you don’t even know you’re doing it) and that you’ll be OK.

Yet, what happens is that you live with the secret of how you really feel, how terrified you are (and were), and how hard it is to trust.

2. You live with secrets.

Yes, you’ve had to keep your feelings a secret from yourself. And, it’s part of the reason you’re still suffering.

Childhood trauma is very complex — whether you were abused, neglected, or had no one in your early life who you could count on. 

Very likely, no one ever talked to you about the trauma either. Or, as is often the case in abuse, threatened you and told you that you’d better never tell.

But, what if you weren’t threatened and still couldn’t tell anyone? Something inside held you back; you were too scared to open it up.

Or, maybe, the people you tried to tell didn’t believe you or didn’t think your childhood trauma was that serious.

And, so you kept quiet. You were ashamed. You didn’t think it should bother you then, and you certainly don’t think you should still be suffering now.

So, you’ve lived with it alone for many years. Maybe you finally trusted someone enough to talk. Or maybe it’s still a secret.

The reality is that you had no other option but to try to forget. And, the saddest thing you had to forget is the hurt and scared little child inside you, who has all the feelings you can’t and couldn’t feel. And, that’s why you continue to suffer.

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

3. There's a child inside you.

That’s right. You may be an adult, but your child self still lives inside. And, that child lives in your memories and feelings.

The ones you can’t feel. For some people, there are good memories and feelings, and they provide a foundation to build a happy and satisfying life.

But, all too often, your childhood trauma has made (and is making) you suffer. And, that child hidden inside has suffered deeply and lived with terror.

Your childhood trauma — whether abuse or loss or illness or something outside of anyone’s control — has deeply affected your life.

Has interfered with your trust, success, relationships, and especially with your happiness. 

No wonder you still suffer. The past lives on, as hard as you’ve tried to forget. And as much as you’ve done everything possible to build a good life in spite of it.

Perhaps, you’ve managed quite well in the easier times. You work around your childhood trauma. Maybe you've even found love.

Perhaps, you have your own children and you do much better with them. Maybe you've even created a very successful career. 

But, there are other times in life; a loss, major stress, an abusive boss, or something else — and all the memories and feelings still living in that hidden child are triggered.

There you are suffering a lot. Even if you managed not to suffer so obviously before. Or, maybe you’ve been suffering your trauma all along. You just didn’t know it.

4. Your past trauma gets triggered

The past lives on inside waiting for reminders. And, what if you’ve had no help for your childhood trauma?

You’ve had to put it aside or forget about the child part of you that is the one who suffered. Although it probably seems unfair, the past lies in wait for something that brings it up.

But, why doesn’t forgetting work? You’re strong. You’ve managed to go on. Why isn’t that enough?

You’re pretty convinced that putting it aside should be successful, right? You haven’t needed anyone’s help before.

Yet, help may be just the thing you need. The unconscious mind holds all that has been buried and begins to show evidence of the feelings you’ve put aside.

There are reasons.

First, if there are triggers for memories and feelings — they can’t be kept quiet. Second, if there are unsettled things from the past; part of what the unconscious does is to help them come up.

You have dreams, symptoms, or feelings. And, these are messages that the traumatized child needs to be heard.

And if the child inside you is heard, you now have a new opportunity to work things out.

Realizing that you’re still suffering from childhood trauma isn’t a bad thing, even if that seems strange.

Why would you want to suffer? But, if you are, then you now have a new chance to know more about your suffering and maybe finally turn that suffering around.

In order to do that, it’s essential to take very seriously that the one who is suffering is the traumatized child still living inside you — the one who has had no voice, no one to listen, and no one to take seriously the effects of what happened.

The feelings of the traumatized child still live in your symptoms.

It’s not too late. With the right kind of help, plus learning to trust it (with a therapist that understands why you wouldn’t trust easily), your suffering can change.

You don’t have to keep all your feelings secret or live with them alone.

Yes, it’s a big leap to even consider that you might stop having to be so tough. Or stop telling yourself, "It’s over. It happened a long time ago. I should be done with it by now."

Isn’t it time to take a chance, listen to the child inside, and get help from someone who knows about childhood trauma?

You can have a place to share your secrets, take what happened seriously, and be with a therapist that listens well. Someone who knows how to be the right kind of guide to find your way out of suffering. Once and for all.

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

Dr. Sandra Cohen is a Los Angeles-based psychologist and psychoanalyst. She specializes in treating childhood trauma, persistent depressive states, and all types of anxiety. For more information, visit her website.

This article was originally published at Sandra E. Cohen, Ph.D's Moving Forward Blog. Reprinted with permission from the author.